It’s really hard to be the favorite!
My son’s basketball team had the best record in the league. Their opponents had the worst. His team had three subs. Their opponents had none. On paper this should have been an easy game for them. The best player on the opposing team fouled out early in the third quarter, making it 5-on-4. So why were they tied with 2 minutes to go in the game? Why were they playing tight, missing shots they usually made, turning over the ball with alarming regularity?
I could hear the stress in the voices on the sidelines. Parents who had been so supportive all season were yelling instructions to their kids. There were groans at each turnover and missed shot. The kids were tight- no doubt about it, but there was not much help from the bleachers. There was so much pressure, I’m surprised they didn’t implode!
They weren’t going to win. No matter what the scoreboard said. They were either going to lose or they were going to do what was expected. If they lost, they would be disappointed because they “should” have won. If they won, the best they would hope to feel was relief. Relief that they didn’t blow it. Relief that their record was intact… until the next game that they were supposed to win.
What is it about being the favorite? Why is it so easy to be the underdog and so hard to live up to the hype of high expectations?
Ultimately, I think it’s the difference between playing with a fear of failure and playing with the freedom of having nothing to lose.
Where does the pressure come from?
It comes from people assuming you’ll succeed, rather than believing you can (and accepting you even if you fail).
It comes from having an identity to protect. If you define yourself solely as a “basketball player”, your self-worth is wrapped up in how you perform. If you don’t live up to the hype, your image as a great athlete is tarnished.
It comes from a fear of letting people down. This happens when the people around you treat you like a hero when you win and are disappointed when you lose. You feel responsible for their feelings.
It comes from when the first (and sometimes only) thing people ask is “did you win?” You think the outcome is more important than the process.
So, as parents, what can we do? How can we support them to ease some of the pressure?
-teach them that there are no guarantees
If the higher ranked team always won, there would be no interest or excitement. There would be no suspense. It’s important for our kids to know that just because someone has a better record or is better “on paper”, doesn’t mean they will always play better. You can never assume you know who will win. “That’s why they play ‘em!”
-practice unconditional love
Our kids need to know that our love for them isn’t riding on their performance. One of my favorite things to do is to cuddle my kids and tell them how much I love having them in my life. If the only times we celebrate them is after they do something we approve of, they’ll start to believe that we love them because of the things they do, not because of who they are. Knowing they are not risking our love every time they play takes the pressure off and gives them the freedom to go for it.
-celebrate all the parts of who they are
Our kids are complex human beings. Basketball (or swimming or soccer or volleyball) is just one of the things they happen to like to do. They also may like art, or video games, or music, or reading or math. They may be caring, thoughtful, funny or reflective. If they think of themselves as human beings first, their identity is not at risk when they play. They are people who just happen to like playing basketball. Their identity is not on the line.
-emphasize the process
When all we focus on is the scoreboard and the win-loss record, our kids believe that the result is more important that the learning. Here’s the thing…the process creates the outcome! It’s the only thing within our kids’ control. Ironically, the more they focus on winning, the less they have left to dedicate to the process… making it less likely that they’ll win! We can help by being more interested in how they felt and what they learned from their game than whether they won. They can take ownership of how they play by putting their energy into how they perform the little things that are within their control (like hustling back on defense or their body language).
-own our own feelings and help our kids own theirs
Our kids are not responsible for our happiness or our disappointment. Our feelings come from our own reaction to a situation (you know that’s true because of how differently people can react to the same scenario). It’s so easy to slip into blame, but worth resisting. Instead of saying, “you make me so happy” or “you let me down”, try “I love watching you play”.
We can also empower our kids to figure out how they want to feel when they play. When we teach them tools of regulation (like deep breathing, having a mantra, changing the story they're telling themselves), they can recognize that they have a choice. They can get back to that optimal feeling when they find themselves getting tight.
Rather than reassuring our kids or telling them how they should feel, we can just listen to what they have to say. It may help to be curious and ask them questions (without judgement) in order to really understand where they’re coming from. By listening without giving advice, we’re sending the message that we believe they can figure out what, if anything, needs to be done. Sometimes they just want to be heard!
There can be a huge amount of pressure on kids when they have been successful in the past. They think they have something to protect, so their motivation is fear-based… to avoid failure. It is easier to play well (and much more enjoyable) when coming from a place of freedom. Taking the pressure off, letting them know that we love them and that we’re not attached to the outcome, as well as teaching them tools to help themselves gives that freedom. It allows them to feel the excitement of going “all in”, without the pressure of high expectations or the worry of letting anyone down.
It can be hard to be the favorite… but it doesn’t have to be!