By Robert B. Andrews MA, LMFT
The shutdown of schools and all sports programs has created quite a shock wave in the families, homes, and lives of athletes who suddenly find themselves without a sport. I have been receiving a lot of inquiries from parents seemingly lost on what to do with their athletes at home. Understandably, this can be a tough transition for all the family members involved.
These losses not only impact the athlete, but are systemic in nature. They affect the entire family.
I thought it might be timely to provide a few tips to help parents cope with this stressful time we all face.
Seven Keys to a Healthy Transition
1. Normalize the first week or two. Look at this like a holiday for the first week or so. Athletes suddenly find themselves at home with little to no schoolwork, no structured workouts, and no competitions. Let them sleep in for a while. I see so many athletes who are sleep-deprived from their rigorous schedules. The grind of training, school, homework, and competitions has left many athletes with serious sleep deprivation. I see athletes that are 40 to 60 hours a month behind in their needed sleep! And we wonder why athletes seem to struggle so much with anxiety and get overwhelmed so easily. Give them time to get caught up. You will see they will be able to better handle the curve ball they have been thrown. They will handle stress, down time, the experience of being disconnected from their sport, and a lack of exercise much better with adequate sleep.
2. Have regular family meetings to discuss how everyone is doing, where they are doing well, where they are struggling, and where they need help. Your kids will resist at first, but if you do a good job of modeling openness and vulnerability and lead a structured meeting, they will learn to value this time together. The family meetings are also good times to discuss expectations around chores, schoolwork, training, and any other topic the family needs to focus their attention on.
3. Help your kids create a written planner for their schoolwork and training schedules. Our athletes are used to structure. They need structure and discipline in their lives. Especially now! In this planner, have them lay out their training schedule. You might ask, “What training schedule?” Find out the most important strengths they need to conserve to be ready to get back in the gym, on the court, or in the pool. Some might need flexibility. Others have strength and conditioning. It is time to get creative. I spoke to a gymnast the other day who committed to doing an hour and fifteen minutes of stretching at 2:00 p.m. six days a week. Her mother ordered her a rug to use since they have hardwood floors. I have seen videos of kids doing conditioning work on the roofs of apartments in New York City. Go for walks, bike rides, or play tennis.
4. Empower them to take responsibility. There are two key traits that determine the level of development we obtain in our lives. One is the capacity to experience empathy, and the other is the ability to take responsibility for our lives. This is a great time for them to step up and learn personal responsibility and accountability. Another suggestion is to have your athlete find an “accountability partner.” This is someone that they can check in with every day to discuss how their workouts are going, if they did them or did not, and why, and if they need support or need to be challenged to stay committed to the agreement they made with themselves and others. I can guarantee you that the athletes who take responsibility for themselves mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually will be the ones who make the best comebacks when their respective sport fires back up again.
5. Connect with others. Today, more than ever, we have the ability to connect with each other. Have your kids step beyond texting and set up Join Me or Vimeo groups with their friends and teammates. This will go against their nature to communicate via text, but it is critical that they learn how to reach beyond these methods of communication and make meaningful attempts to reach out in ways that they can see a smile or a laugh. They need to be able to see when a friend is upset. Connection is critical during this time. Text messaging is not enough. I have been using FaceTime, Skype or JoinMe with some of my friends on my Mac. The bigger the screen, the better the connection. It is amazing how our faces light up when we see each other. It has made for a much richer conversation. I end up feeling emotionally full and connected to them. If they set up a team or group list, make sure to include everyone! I have worked with far too many athletes who have been left out of group chats and text groups. They need this connection just as much as anyone else.
6. Try new things to stimulate your mind, body, and emotions as a family. Try a family game night, movie night, bike rides or walks, reading time, family cookouts, or karaoke. These might get your family out of their comfort zones. This is a time we must get out of the boxes we live in mentally and emotionally. Challenge your family to get uncomfortable with new experiences.
7. Expect your kids behavior to be less than perfect. They are under tremendous stress. Many have experienced profound losses. The loss of a season, connection to a team, identity, structure, meets, travel, to name a few. Be mindful of this when you discipline. If things do get tough, here are a few tips to help deal with kids who don’t respond to your reminders. Some parents say that no matter what they do, their kids won’t get off of their phones or video games. They just sleep and play games or are on their phones. There is a concept called “escalation of leverages.” It goes like this. If your kid won’t get off of their video games or phone, take something that they value away. Limit their data or take their phone away for a few hours a day. If that doesn’t work, raise the leverage that you have on them. Take their TV out of their room for a few hours or day. Take their phone away. When they buy into the structure that they need to hold themselves to, then the reward is that they get the data, the phone, the video controller, or the TV back. Sometimes we have to be the wall with our kids. They won’t like it, but like I said earlier, they need structure now more than they possibly ever have.
I hope these tips help. It will take time, and you will struggle. Keep at it. If your kids aren’t frustrated or angry at you at times, then you aren’t holding them accountable enough. These are trying times for all of us. When kids get stressed, they look for something to push up against as a way of feeling safe. If they don’t find it, they keep pushing. Some will end up getting in trouble with their behaviors. You can be something that they push up against. It will be good for all of you, and it will help them stay on track in their schoolwork and in their respective sports.
If you need help implementing these strategies, feel free to contact me.
Peace and stay safe,