I missed my son’s soccer game one day. I was at his younger brother’s game, filling in for one of my coaches, so my wife and I divided forces. As soon as our game was done, we hurried to meet my wife and other son for lunch.
Of course, I wanted to engage him and find out about his game. I don’t like missing watching them play, and wanted him to know I cared about his game. So I asked the same questions we all ask our children after a game or performance:
“Did you win?” I asked.
My son frowned and said, “No. We got crushed 4-0.”
“Oh, that is okay. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you always learn, right?”
I continued, “Did you score?”
My son’s head dropped. He looked up at me through the top of his eyes. I could see disappointment splashed across his face. My mind started racing. What was wrong? What did I say that caused this? Why was he so upset at that question?
My son spoke softly, as if maybe he could say it and be done with it, but the world might not hear it. “No, dad. I did not score. I am sorry I let you down.”
There it was. The searing pain in my heart of seeing my son feel like he let me down. Of realizing he thinks his entire self-worth is based on outcomes. Of the possibility I would love him less because he didn’t score a goal.
It seemed ludicrous to think it, but there it was. Plain as daylight, and undeniably powerful. My son apologized to me because he didn’t score.
I was devastated. I could not do this to him.
I travel extensively speaking on this very topic. Helping coaches and parents develop growth mindsets in athletes that focus on process and not outcome. Teaching parents to love their children unconditionally and create a safe to fail sport environment.
In one of my sessions, I show a video of a young man reduced to tears when his dad spends a 15-minute car ride berating him for a poor performance at football. This father talks about wasted money, time spent driving his son, and disappointment at the boy for underperforming…for not living up to the investment he made in him. How can I show this video to parents and then be guilty of causing similar feelings in my own son?
What was it that caused my son to feel that way?
I did what all coaches, parents, and invested adults do. I attempted to connect with my son by asking the wrong questions.
I asked two questions: Did you win? Did you score?
Both questions are outcome-based. They have nothing to do with my son’s experience, growth, or effort in the game but on the arbitrary results which can be affected by more variables than he can possibly control.
It sets an expectation that for him to be successful, he must be able to create the desired outcome, one that is way out of his ability to fully direct and manipulate.
He cannot win a game by himself. He relies on his teammates, the performance of the other team, the weather, his playing time, decisions made by his coach, and even decisions made by a referee (sometimes). It is not possible at all for him to control all those. Nor should he be expected to do so.
Secondly, and again, for him to score also relies on a great deal of extraneous factors over which he has absolutely no say. How the ball bounces, the skill of the keeper, his positioning on the field, and his teammates’ decisions to pass the ball to him hold power over his ability to get that result.
My words set my son up for regular failure. Some days he may be able to answer positively, but other days he will have failed me in his quest. This is a roller coaster ride for someone struggling to find his way in the world, develop in a difficult to master sport, and live up to his own and his dad’s dreams. Worse, though, is the deep impact my words can cause on my son beyond the game. You see, asking him about outcome sets a dangerous model for him. It creates a relationship with me and mindset in him that will extend into his life.
Here are some of the potential pitfalls of asking the wrong questions:
- It tells him my love is conditional. Whether I mean it or not, this is his possible interpretation. “Dad won’t love me unless I win and score goals”. Children seek to please and to belong. If he thinks his belonging hinges on scoring, we are in for a world of psychological hurt. Even great goal scorers convert very little compared to the amount of time on the soccer field. He will never feel like he can please me if he only scores once in a while and will feel as if he won’t be able to get my love without it.
- It creates a fixed mindset which focuses on outcomes and not process. My son will not seek to get better or cherish a challenge. He will seek wins and goals. He will believe his worth is based on some innate talent that is unchangeable. Either he is a goal scorer and winner or he isn’t. We want our children focused on hard work, effort, mastery…not on outcomes. He will spend his life seeking results and possibly not learn the value of effort and mastery.
- It convinces my son he has some standard to live up to in my eyes. Instead of thinking that I love to watch him play regardless of outcomes, he now thinks that I expect him to succeed at all times. If he does not reach my expectations he must have “let me down”. We see this dynamic play out in almost every after school or made for TV movie. The parent has dangerously high-expectations, the child realized he or she cannot meet those, and there is a conflict. The movies always wrap it up so nicely for us, but this is the real world. We don’t always get a second chance to set our children on the right path with healthy standards and expectations.
- Finally, this line of questioning also has the potential to create an identity crisis. The child thinks his entire worth, and who he is as a contributing member in society, is wrapped up in the sport and his success in it. Think that is a bit far-fetched? I assure you it is not. When I finally “retired” from soccer, one of my biggest reasons was I had lost my identity the sport. Parents, coaches, influencers in my life had always been so joyful over my goal scoring and winning ways. I wrapped my identity in the fact I was a great goal scorer until I hit a year-long drought. The more days went by that I did not score, the more I felt as if I was losing who I was. If I was not a great goal scorer in soccer, who was I? Why was I playing? What must all my supporters think of me? I was lucky enough to get perspective, hang up the cleats, and define my identity through other means. We are all not so lucky.
These are the dangers of asking the wrong questions, and it is a lot to digest. To think the questions we ask our children can have such deep reaching and wide sweeping effects is a hard pill to swallow. After all, they are just words.
Words have great power. They build up and tear down the world around us every day. They unite peoples, ignite movements, and drive great change in the world. They imprint deeply on both our brains and in our psyche. Do not discount the power they hold.
It is easy to see what caused my son’s reaction, but difficult to change the pattern. We have all been conditioned, over generations, to evaluate outcomes and carry conversations based around those outcomes. It’s easy to see what I did wrong, it is not easy to change it…trust me.
Let’s start with step one on the road to change. Ask different questions.
Instead of “How did you do”, “Did you score”, or “Did you win” ask open-ended questions focused on the game itself, the process, the learning, and your child’s effort.
Ask “What did you think of the game?” “Did you try any new skills?”
Or you can ask my favorite. A question that gets your child talking, evaluating, analyzing, and thinking. It empowers your child to own the experience: “Tell me about the game”.