The New You

Finding the motivation to change.

3 Tips on How to Coach Your College Bound Kid

Using sport psychology to get the most out of your kids

 A friend of mine has a son who’s going off to college on a baseball scholarship, and whenever she hears the phrase “student-athlete”, she snorts. “He’s going to college to learn, not play. He’s a student, as far as I’m concerned--not an athlete!”

To which I always want to say: What’s the difference, exactly?

It’s clear to me that today’s students are basically athletes, whether they realize it or not. Their sport is academics, and their arena happens to be the classroom, but they are under the same constant pressure—pressure to perform, whether that’s in academic or social settings. This is especially true of college students, who are like rookies acclimating to the pros after a successful, encouraging stint in the minor leagues (read: under your roof).

Just like their peers on the baseball field, the wrestling arena or the gridiron, a college student can no longer rely on raw, innate prowess to produce results. It’s our own mentality which makes or breaks our performance, whether that performance involves hitting that walk-off home run or acing that key statistics final. And as your son or daughter goes off to college, you as a parent can do certain things which help them on their way.

So what’s the best way to coach your kids to bat a thousand?

1.  Don’t lecture—ask.

Motivational interviewing can be one of the most powerful tools in any coach’s arsenal. The basic idea is that lecturing and commanding is rarely the best strategy—your kids will automatically resist. We all remember being lectured by our parents to clean our room, but how often did we listen?

(If you were anything like me, you made your room even messier after these talks, just to show them).

So instead of telling your soon-to-be scholar to study hard, manage his or her time wisely and go to bed on time, no exceptions, ask them instead how they plan to achieve their goals. Keep the questions open-ended. Think “What’s your plan for keeping track of your homework assignments?” instead of “Do your homework, or you’ll be a failure!”

2. Confidence matters.

In sports, like academics, the way you perceive your self-efficacy as a performer can positively or negatively affect the end result. Reinforcing positive behaviors and attitudes will help root them in your child’s behavior—and build up their self-esteem and assurance.

Note that this doesn’t mean you should shower them with undeserved praise. Be specific instead! Don’t just say, “I’m so proud of you!” Say why: “I’m so proud of you; instead of going to the movies on Thursday, you stayed in and studied, and I’m sure that helped you get an A on that last test!” Focus on strengths and ask them how they plan to use those strengths to succeed.

3. Encourage good sleeping habits and time management.

Chances are that your kids discount the importance of sleep. But many studies have shown that lack of sleep contributes to difficultly understanding and retaining new information. Sleep deprivation affects the frontal lobes, which control decision-making, memory formation and planning skills, in turn influencing academic performance—all of which are necessary for collegiate success. Not only will your son or daughter feel better with a good night’s rest, but their brains will function at an optimal level, making it easier for them to complete their schoolwork.

Starting college provides a unique opportunity for students to reinvent themselves. Discarding bad habits is a huge part of that: writing term papers the night before their deadline, sleeping through class, or procrastinating with 10-hour Netflix benders, to name a few. Rather than criticizing them when you hear about these bad habits, I suggest trying the motivational interviewing techniques described above to help them stay on track with the sleep schedule and time management. Remember: questions, not commands.

As your kids book their flights, pack their suitcases and head off into the next phase of their lives, they may sometimes need a small reminder that being a great student isn’t just talent—it’s also a matter of mentality and motivation. And maybe a little help from a great coach looking out for them from the sidelines.

For more on Motivation and Sport Psychology, be sure to follow me on Twitter @drfader or on Facebook!

Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., is a psychologist and an assistant professor of family medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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