With our Tryout series taking place soon, we want to help parents and players through the Tryout season – a notoriously difficult period in the Soccer season. Skye Bruce from Parenting Resources and Stu Singer sat down for a 20 minute interview! Here are the highlights from that interview.
First to give credibility to the interviewee:
Stu Singer has worked as the Director of Performance Psychology for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, and as the performance psychologist for University of Maryland Women’s Basketball team, Fordham University Women’s Basketball team, Rice University and the Connecticut Sun among others. Stu served an integral role in helping the University of Maryland Women’s basketball team reach back to back Final Fours, and Fordham University women’s basketball in winning their first A-10 championship, receiving an NCAA tournament bid, and their best record in 20 years. Additionally, he has worked with players from MLS and NWSL, and the Men’s National Team Player Pool, Massachusetts ODP, and the Boston Bolts Development Academy coaches.
His approach focuses on teaching and providing mental performance skills for athletes that have the pressures of competing at elite levels in high school, collegiate, and professional sports. Stu also provides team trainings, clinics, and consultation with coaches on how to develop healthy and effective mental performance fundamentals for their athletes.
Stu completed his Doctor of Psychology coursework at the University of the Rockies specializing in sport and performance psychology, and is a professional member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Additionally, he received his M.Ed. in Counseling from Shippensburg University.
Stu is married to Juli, and has three kids – Rose, Jackson, and Lily. Each are multi-sport athletes, and Jackson is a ODP Region 1 selection, and Boston Bolts DA player. He knows what it is to be the parent of a youth athlete!
I was a crazy soccer parent with tryouts. Honestly, the more I get down this path with Soccer Parenting, I realize that one of the reasons I founded it is because I was really, really stressing out unnecessarily. I was not acting appropriately. I wrote an article about tryout stress, which is being recirculated a lot right now. I mean, for me, there are times where I literally felt just this deep sense of stress dropping my daughter off for practice or just afraid that she wasn’t going to make the team. Even a team. Any team. Not just the top team or just feel like she wasn’t going to be in the right place. Do you feel this or sense this from other parents? Is this a common story or was I just really, really out there with this stress?
No. It could not be more typical. I see it all the time and I think you actually said the right word is that it was unnecessary. And I think that is where I may want to start with this. So let’s start from the basic idea that there’s a reason for it. And so let me give you what triggers what I would call fear. So what you’re really … When you’re stressed out you are anxious/fearful of something, right? What if she doesn’t make the team? All right. And so here’s the reality. This is the science of what we know. Here are the four triggers to our fear. The first trigger is when we are uncertain. When we are uncertain of an outcome, we are going to trigger fear.
It’s why we have butterflies before a game. It’s why we have butterflies before a presentation as adults. It’s why we have butterflies. The kids may have butterflies before a test. They could have taken every note, they could have got an A on every quiz, they could have studied for three hours. For the most part there’s still going to be some nerves. Why? Because it’s uncertain. They don’t know. What if there’s trick questions or they frame it in a way? What if I didn’t prepare the whole way? So uncertainty. All right. So that’s the first trigger. Second trigger is attention. All right. All eyes are on me. People are paying attention. They’re evaluating me. The third one is change and the fourth one is struggle.
But you could go down that list. I will tell you that there’s attention. Are people paying attention to me because of how well my kid performs? Are they saying I’m a good parent or bad parent? Which that has nothing to do with it, but we can frame it that way. And then the change part might be limited in this scenario, but certainly struggle. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. And so we’re feeling A, those things for ourselves, first of all and then we’re also … Because that’s what we tend to do as parents. We get into what’s my kid experiencing? Is my kid experiencing uncertainty? Are people evaluating them? Is there going to be difficult? Is going to be challenging? Is this struggle? And so immediately, does it make sense that we’re now going to be stressed?
Yeah, for sure. I think when I’ve talked to parents about this stress, the two things that come into play are this uncertainty about the outcome for sure, I think is a key driver for parental stress. I think the other uncertainty that really layers into all of this is the uncertainty about who the coach of the different teams are going to be. Who’s going to be on those teams? Is this the right fit for my child? I hear a lot of that. That can be remedied from clubs communicating better. That’s a role that clubs can play. And then I have to say, I don’t know where this would fit in, but also just I think the lack of trust if your child is … The feeling like a child is going to kind of fall behind. If they don’t make a top team or have a coach they’re going to fall behind and never be able to catch up. Just that overwhelming sense of potential inevitability about that I would say are some of the things that really played out for me. But having this framework helps I guess in understanding the stress, but how as parents do we deal with it? What are the steps for handling that?
Okay. The reason I wanted to start there is because I wanted to start with here’s the reality, here’s the truth. Doesn’t make us weak. It doesn’t make us bad. It doesn’t make us anything. It just makes us pretty normal, quite honestly. That’s the way the brain is designed. However, this is where we can start to take back a little bit and start to frame it for ourselves. So if you think about yourself as your child’s first coach. So in a way what we’re trying to do is the reason that we want to better at this is now so that we can coach them to get better at this. So if I sit there and I’m full of anxiety and my kid’s going to feel it by the way. All right. They’re going to feel it. Believe me. They feel your anxiousness. How are we going to tell them you shouldn’t be anxious while we’re in this state? So if you think of yourself as the first model, coach, whatever you want to call it, we have to gain a little bit of perspective and control.
And so one of the things that’s at play … And I’m going to go through a handful of things that are at play. But the very first one is that you’re trying to control something that’s not in your control. And you’re way out into the future, meaning that you’re predicting. So the first part is I want to control. You’re not saying this literally, but your mind is saying, if I can take all the worry away, if I can get the right thing, if she can be seen the right way, then I’ll get the outcome that I want. She’ll get the outcome that she wants. And that’s not ours. So the very first part is it’s not ours to own. We don’t own the outcome.
So the very first thing that we want to start to do is say, well, what do we have some control over as a parent? Here’s what we have some control over. Did they sleep? Or at least we don’t have control over them sleeping, but let’s get them to bed relatively early. Let’s make sure that they ate relatively well. Let’s make sure that they’re hydrated. We had everything packed up and ready to go so that we’re not stressed out trying to get out of the house now already in a state of stress. Right? And what have we done with them, for them leading up to the tryout? So what environment do we put them in? What coaches did they have? Have we made good recommendations? Not crazy, not stressing them out, but has their process been pretty good leading up to the tryout? Because they’re not getting better or worse that day. They are what they are at that point. All right. And so those are the things that we have control over.
What do they have control over? Doing those things. So we’re helping create the environment, they have to … I’m going to bed at a reasonable time. I’m going to practice leading up to it. I’m going to have eaten and hydrated and all that kind of stuff. I have my stuff laid out if they’re old enough. All that kind of stuff. And we’re also going to ask them not to predict anything. We’re not going to ask them to control anything. One of the things that we can do as parents for them is to say, “Well, who are you as a player?” All right.
So if you are a fast, aggressive attack minded type of player, then get that vision. Try to begin to see what you are. Because you’re not becoming a different player today. But so many athletes, … And this happens by the way … I should also backtrack. Right now I have a high school age client who’s going through tryouts and I’m talking to them about this. And in the WNBA we’re in training camp right now so we have a lot of players who are unsigned free agents that are in training camp, looking to see if they can get a spot and they’re in the same state of mind. And so I do the same exact thing with pros as I do down to a ninth grade, 10th grade client.
One thing that’s resonating with me when I’m hearing you talk is okay, we understand and can acknowledge, it sounds like, just acknowledge the fact that we’re feeling stress. Realize that it is what it is. It’s not right or wrong. It is here. And then from there, we can go and we can control what we can control and we can manage it. It is what it is. It’s not going to just go away if we are feeling it. And it being there is something that we can work through and, like I said, we can control. The conversation that we have with our children. So I got the sleep, I got the nutrition, the hydration, all of that stuff. That’s all great. Getting out the door with very little stress. Getting there in time. All of those things. So the two conversations or the two primary times you communicate I want to dive in with you. One is, you were saying the preparation. What type of athlete are you? When should we be having those conversations with our child? Obviously that’s not the conversation to have in the car ride on the way to tryouts, necessarily, having that for the first time. How should we be layering in these conversations with our kids as we are preparing them for tryouts?
The sooner, the better. I think that one of the things we’re not great at … And when I say we, coaches, teachers, parents, society quite honestly. Is understanding all this stuff. Understand it. These are all natural experiences. These are not abnormal experiences. In fact, I posted something about Alex Morgan earlier this morning. She just wrote an article in The Player’s Tribune. And it talks about how she goes through moments where she has doubt. And so if literally one of the best players in the world experiences that, let’s stop acting like a 15 year old’s not going to experience that.
If nothing else, it actually makes them more stressed because we’re actually trying to tell them to lie. But then they feel like, well maybe I’m supposed to not feel that. So let’s get rid of that. And one of the things that we don’t do well is understand what we are and what we do and what we do well. Again, by design, our brain is designed to pick up on the danger of a scenario. So if we feel like, “I’m really good at this and this, but the one thing that I notice my one friend is just her ability to dribble through and by defenders is just so much better than me.” The brain typically pulls us to that … That’s our danger. We want to try to prevent that. And what we don’t do a good enough job is pay attention to what we are. And let’s capitalize and be what we are. We can always add onto what we are. So when I say the sooner, the better, all the time we should be asking them to actively understand what it is that they bring to the table. What they bring to the game.
Can you frame that conversation? I don’t want to get too sidetracked but I think this is actually really important. So then our kids can understand you who they are so that one, we can give that to them. So it’s nothing that we’re trying to control. We let them lead that process. And then I think when they do get into the stress, they can fall back on this to build confidence and to deal with their stress.
So it’s actually an exercise that I do with the athletes. When you say fall back on it, literally this is something that I try to … It’s an exercise and then a skill that I have them practice. I call it best self. And I ask them to tell me what they are when they’re at their best. And this is how I frame it. Tell me what you look like, sound like and feel like. And I put this parameter on it. It cannot be outcome description. So they can’t say, “When I’m at my best, I’m scoring hat tricks.” They can’t say, “If I’m a keeper, I make every save.” Okay. What they can say is, “When I’m at my best, I’m taking people on. I’m making decisive runs. I’m demanding the ball.” That’s how we score a goal. The keeper might come up big. We might mishit it and it just goes wide or it hits a post. There are things that are out of our control. But man, if you’re making decisive runs, you’re demanding the ball and you’re taking people on, I’m pretty sure that the better outcomes are just around the corner.
But if we’re hesitant, if we’re not as loud when we make that run, then we’re placing ourselves behind the eight ball at that point. So that’s what I mean by having them say, “What do I look like?” I often ask them if I’m watching a video of me, the sound is off and there’s three different videos of me, how will I look at it and be able to say that’s the one? Whatever is going on right now I felt good in that moment. And that’s how I frame it. But I make sure that one of the things that we’re not talking about is outcome.
So if your kid is a goal scorer, don’t talk to them about scoring goals. Talk to them about what it looks like to score goals. If they’re a defender, don’t talk about every tackle being perfect. Talk about what goes into defending well.
How would this translate? So we have this time with our kids. One, any advice for us for parents on how not to lead the conversation, even when tempted to? So you open up this door, your child’s kind of open to hearing this conversation, having it with you, but then they’re not being super actively participating in it. And I can see that it would be really easy as a parent to sort of say, “Oh, well, when you do this,” and to feed this to your child. Obviously we don’t want to do that. So any advice for parents on if the conversation isn’t really working? Can you give them homework? Can you have them do it on their own? What would you do?
All the above. Part of it starts again with as early as possible because of the idea that sometimes we have to introduce something and allow them to just process it and sit with it before they’re going to just kick something back.
You mentioned that I have my own kids that are … At the end of the day, I’m a sports parent, just like anybody else that’s on this webinar. And they know what I do for a living. They’re very aware of what I do for a living. And that doesn’t always mean that they’re interested in hearing me tell them what I think they should be doing mentally. And so I have to be as good as I possibly can at opening up the door and navigating it a little bit. I remember very specifically the first year that my son went to regional camp from ODP. And the day before he was about to leave, we happened to be out back of the house and we’re talking, messing around, doing whatever and all of a sudden I could feel the tension in him kind of. And so we started to talk about it. And he said, “Yeah, I’m scared. I’m nervous about this.” And so very first thing, normalize it. “Of course you are. You should be. First of all, you’re, I don’t know, 12 or 13 and you’re going away without us and you don’t know what to expect. It’s a relatively big deal.” Blah, blah, blah.
And then I went into, “Tell me who you are, because you’re not changing today. You’re not going to become a different player so tell me who you are.” And he at first was not clear. “What do you mean?” Blah, blah, blah. But he did it. And I could actually literally feel him go from here to here. I’m not saying he went down to here. I’m just saying that I could see relief. And that to me is our process. And we have to allow for them … This is going to sound so generic, but open ended. Not saying, “Well, you’re a goal scorer, so you do this.” Say, “Well, what does a goal scorer do? What do you do?” And allow for them to struggle their way through getting to the right answer.