How Do You Explain Sports Psychology to a 7-Year-Old?

My youngest is seven and he loves sports. He’s now at the age where he’s interested enough to really want to win, and to be bothered by mistakes and losing. He’s the first of my kids to have this intensity.

It has been fascinating for me, because it teases out how nuanced and complicated the psychology of competition is. There have been countless moments this season where he has posed questions or situations have occurred that force me to face the many paradoxes of the mental game.

For instance, he told me before the big game that he was feeling stressed and nervous. I told him, “Hey man, it’s been a great season, it’s amazing you made it this far, and you should just go have fun. You’ve got nothing to lose!”

I thought this would put him at ease. I could tell he was tense, and he doesn’t play as well when he’s overthinking it.

His reply surprised me.

“Dad it doesn’t seem right to give up and just try to have fun. We’ve worked so hard to get here, I feel like we should try to win.”

I replied, “Well of course you want to win! But you can still have fun.”

I could tell this did not satisfy him. I thought for a minute, then asked him, “When do you play better: when you’re stressed about the big moment, or when you’re relaxed and having fun?”

He thought for a minute too, then replied, “Probably right in the middle.”

That answer totally surprised me. But it seemed so wise too, and correct. He seems to have discovered the need for the tension between relaxation and heightened intensity. The clutch moments should mean more. You should feel the pressure. You should also be relaxed, have fun, and play like you have nothing to lose.

I told him, “Perfect, then do both. Be focused, but have fun too.”

I’m so glad he didn’t ask me how to do this. I would have no idea how to answer. I’ve been able to find that zone before, between relaxed and intense, but I couldn’t tell you how, let alone tell another person how they could do it. At least not yet. But it has me thinking.

This was just one of many such moments throughout the season where I realized how hard it is to explain things that are going on internally in sports to a seven-year-old.

If he was older, I’d just tell him to read The Inner Game of Tennis. But with young kids (actually, even my older kids don’t want to read the stuff I tell them), that’s not an option. They want me to give an answer and help them understand.

It’s a lot more challenging than you might think.

When we lost (by one run in extra innings) he cried. Is that healthy or bad? Did it indicate too much pressure on himself, or pressure from me or others, or is it ok?

These are not easy questions. The answers are different for each kid too. I think for him, it was a perfect balance this time. He still smiled when he got his second place medal. He didn’t get angry or blame anyone. But his heart was broken and his resolve for next season already started. If you don’t get your heart broken, are you really giving it your heart?

It’s not easy watching your kid cry after losing a game where he fought so hard, made some mistakes, made some good plays, and is now thinking over all of it in his head. But it’s so necessary. Parenting means continually learning to handle your kids suffering – always trying to save them will destroy you both. And growing up means learning what to do when you lose.

Just wait until I try to explain to him the mental state of a lifelong Detroit Lions fan. The kids isn’t ready for that level of suffering.