Our Words Matter: Suggestions for Communicating With Young Athletes

As a Certified Mental Performance Consultant®, I have received several calls recently from troubled parents about their children dealing with fear of failure and elements of perfectionism. In particular, one conversation with a father of a young athlete has stood out. We discussed how language used with children can impact their mindset and motivation.

So, how can parents impact their athletes’ motivation? According to some theorists, individuals’ development and well-being are influenced by the degree to which three critical human needs are satisfied (Ryan & Deci, 2000). These basic needs are autonomy (i.e., perception of control), competence (i.e., perception of skill), and relatedness (i.e., perception of connection to others). Adults, such as parents, can have a direct and significant impact on creating the conditions that help satisfy young athletes’ basic needs and, ultimately, help them cultivate self-determined motivation.

Parents’ choice of words when guiding young people through their athletic experiences is one critical factor impacting these facilitative conditions (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Mageau & Vallerand, 2003).

  • For instance, a parent offering controlling feedback might say something like, “Great job today EVEN though the other team wasn’t very good,” (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003).
  • On the flip side, parents who provide unconditional, positive, and informational feedback are much more likely to gain the trust of the athlete. This type of feedback will give the athlete the opportunity to make choices about how to implement and maintain the perception of control that is important to achieve sustainable sport motivation. Examples of this type of language are, “I am proud of the effort you showed today,” or “You seemed committed to improving yourself all throughout today’s practice.”


Unfortunately, for many parents, it can be difficult to step back and allow young people the room to interpret events and solve problems on their own. To help adopt this approach, the following are three relatively simple suggestions to consider:

  • Choose your words wisely. There are certain words that adults should avoid when coaching and parenting young people (Reeve, 2016). Avoid absolutes and judgmental words. Avoid the words should, just, always, and never. “JUST throw strikes.” “You SHOULD have made that play.” “You NEED to focus.” Using this type of language lacks empathy and conflicts with the athletes’ need to feel competent. There is little chance that adults on the sidelines can understand all of the conditions converging in that moment that led to the ultimate result. Rather than judge the outcome, try to put yourself in the young athlete’s shoes and emphasize the process that will lead to improvements next time and help them develop a greater sense of autonomy. One example of positive feedback might be, “I love how you refocused after that last run and persevered through that difficult inning.”
  • There is a time and a place for everything. For parents, in particular, choosing the right time to deliver feedback to young athletes is of the utmost importance. Harshly criticizing or “coaching” your child from the sidelines may be embarrassing and have a detrimental impact on your child’s motivation during a game and in the long-term. Further, parents choosing to initiate feedback conversations on the ride home may want to tread lightly. Parents would be well-served to understand how the timing and their words will impact their child (Tamminen, Poucher, & Povilaitis, 2017). Further, the best course of action may be to wait until the athlete broaches the conversation or after a bit of time has passed to allow the athlete to “cool down” emotionally.
  • Hold yourself accountable to improve communications. We, as adults, ask kids to put in hours and hours of practice to get better at sports. Likewise, parents can improve their sports parenting skills, too. Getting better doesn’t happen accidentally. One way to hold yourself accountable to adopting language that better supports self-determined motivation is to keep a log of the language you use when communicating with young athletes, whether on the sidelines, in practice, or at home. Journaling can increase self-awareness, improved listening, and the use of more adaptive (i.e., effective) language in the future (Azimi & Tamminen, 2020).


Ultimately, it is critical to keep the long-term objective in mind (i.e., that young athletes continue to participate in athletics). To achieve this goal, adults must create an autonomy-supportive environment in which young athletes can sustain motivation to participate and avoid burnout. It may not be easy to change your communication patterns, but the benefits of doing so can be very significant for your child. Building positive communication habits will help facilitate the ultimate goal of long-term participation and enjoyment of the sport experience.


Azimi, S. & Tamminen, K. A. (2020) Parental communication and reflective practice among youth sport parents, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2019.1705433

Mageau, G. A., & Vallerand, R. J. (2003). The coach-athlete relationship: A motivational model. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21, 883-904.

Reeve J. (2016) Autonomy-Supportive Teaching: What It Is, How to Do It. In: Liu W., Wang J., Ryan R. (eds) Building Autonomous Learners. Springer, Singapore. DOI: 10.1007/978-981-287-630-0_7

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Tamminen, K., Poucher, Z., & Povilaitis, V. (2017). The car ride home: An interpretive examination of parent-athlete sport conversations. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 6(4), 325-339, DOI: 10.1037/spy0000093

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