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Webinar replay: Athlete traps and parenting hacks

How can parents help their young athlete navigate the challenges and pitfalls of sport? 

In the face of growing pressure for adolescent athletes to train harder, perform better and achieve at a higher level, we are seeing mounting evidence of young athletes succumbing to concerning behaviours such as, extreme dieting, excessive training, taking supplements and doping. 

In this webinar, we hear from Dr Sian Clancy – the General Manager of Athlete Services and leader of the education team at Drug Free Sport NZ, on clean sport parenting. 

Key takeaways from the webinar 

1 | Adolescent brain development 

  • Instead of thinking of and treating adolescents like small adults, it is important to recognise that their brain is at a different stage of development compared to adults. How we support adolescents, particularly manage or direct decision needs to factor this in.  
  • In adults, the prefrontal cortex – controlling problem-solving, behaviour moderation and planning – acts in coordination with the ventral striatum – the part of the brain responsible for sensation-seeking, reward and reinforcement. As an adult, these areas of the brain are well developed and typically fully functional.  
  • In children, these two areas of the brain are undeveloped and uncoordinated however are progressing at the same pace. 
  • In adolescence, SOME AREAS OF THE BRAIN ARE DEVELOPING FASTER THAN OTHERS and have disjoined coordination. The prefrontal cortex (problem-solving, behaviour moderation, planning) is slower than the ventral striatum (sensation-seeking, reward, reinforcement). Decision-making speeds up around peers and when risks, rewards or sensation are perceived outcomes of a particular behaviour. This leaves little opportunity for considered, logical or rationale thinking and decision-making. 
  • Invincibility fable – this is a developmental characteristic of adolescence which leaves rangatahi understanding that bad things can happen to others but not happen to them. 
  • Synaptic pruning – is a cognitive process explained well by a ‘Use it or lose it’ mentality. During adolescence, the cognitive processes practiced most frequently will be strengthened and become easily drawn upon for an individual. Comparatively, the thought processes and cognitive skills infrequently used can be culled or left undeveloped meaning they are harder to call on and less comprehensive when required. The cognitive processes that are refined and strengthened during adolescence are those maintained in adulthood hence why it’s so important to encourage the development of logic-based decision-making skills during adolescence.  

Read: A parent guide to child growth and development in sport 

2 | Mastery matters 

A win-at-all-costs mentality poses a risk to young athletes on multiple levels: stress and perceived performance expectations may lead to shortcut-taking because of the drive to achieve ‘wins’ quickly.  

Practical tips 

  • Find out your child’s motivations for training/playing and focus on these when talking to your child about their sport, trainings or games (e.g., if their motivations are ‘fun’ or ‘friends’, ask them what parts they enjoyed the most and why?; or who they would like to train more with/could learn from?). 
  • Help your child to set goals in-line with a mastery focus toward skill learning and development (e.g., What did you do well in your game today?; Which skills do you need to work on?) 
  • Be clear that it takes time to improve performance, and that real performance improvements are a result of hard work. 
  • Aim to incorporate mastery in your own definitions and criteria for success in youth sport. Praise effort, and application to process more so than outcome. 

Watch: Mastering the art of sports parenting 

3 | Plan for choice 

Helping rangatahi practice decision-making skills stops them from continuing to rely on those quick decisions based on the ventral striatum – the part of the brain reactive to sensation-seeking, risk, reward, and reinforcement.  

Practical tips 

  • Frequently make space for rangatahi to make their own decisions, even if it is between two options selected by you. Once they have made the decision, ask them why and discuss their decision-making process. 
  • Show young people the value of the learning opportunities that occur when you make mistakes. 
  • Begin with simple decision-making opportunities and extend these in complexity as your adolescent’s skills develop. 

4 | Media mindfulness 

Critical thinking skills can help adolescents better able to navigate the media landscapes they are immersed in. When they see their sporting heroes advertising the latest supplement, do they question if they are doing it because they are paid to do so, and not necessarily because they use the supplement? Are your rangatahi curious about the evidence that may support marketing claims? Do they query if the images they are seeing every day in magazines or on the internet are the result of extensive filters and photoshop editing rather than the supposed use of a marketed substance?  

Practical tips 

  • Ask critical questions about content viewed, liked or shared (e.g., What kind of edits do you think have been made to this photograph?). 
  • Query if advertised facts can be supported by evidence? 
  • Ask athletes if they believe the imagery they see in the media are genuine and how can they be sure. Young people don’t necessarily need to answer the questions straight away, but the question itself may continue to help young people critically reflect and think into the future.  

5 | Model behaviour 

Adolescents are heavily influenced by those around them. Until mid-adolescence, their parents or close whānau are a key factor in influencing their decision-making and behaviour; after which they are largely influenced by peers, media and others in their social context.  

Supplements are a threat to rangatahi when used as a shortcut to improve performance or appearance – this type of behaviour (looking for quick fixes and results) can develop cognitive patterns which make doping behaviours more likely later in life. 

Practical tips 

  • As an adult, consider your own use of supplements and the example that might be setting for adolescents. 
  • Take a food-first approach to nutrition wherever possible. 
  • Be aware of the perceived norms your rangatahi hold about substance use and sport and be prepared to challenge these in general conversation.  

Read: What makes an expert sports parent? 

6 | Assess the threat 

Consider and be aware of threats to rangatahi from a clean sport perspective, in their environment, such as: 

  • Sporting success defined by winning and performance (over mastery: skill learning and development). 
  • No / limited opportunities for adolescents to have a voice, make autonomous decisions or to ask questions. 
  • Exposure to substance use as a means to improvement (e.g., performance or appearance). 
  • Ego and outcome orientated sporting climates. 
  • Unrealistic / perceived expectations on results and accelerated development.  

More resources: 

Drug Free Sport – Good Clean Sport Tool Kit 

Drug Free Sport – Your role in clean sport 

Keeping your child’s sport clean: Tips for parents and whānau 

Image Source: Sport NZ

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