Parenting the Gifted Performer

May 4, 2009

When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets —
He is out of his mind!

This bit of sports psychology – penned several thousand years ago by a famous Chinese sage* – is as useful today as it was then. It is also a wonderful bit of wisdom to pass on to children who excel in athletics or the performing arts. Too often, and too early, many children are taught to shoot for the “brass buckle.” They are taught that winning alone is what matters, and that “performance anxiety” is a normal state.

Instead of continually focusing on the gold prize, an alternative is to model for children that what really matters to many world-class performers is “shooting for nothing” – experiencing the sheer joy of the performance, and of the competition itself. Yes, champions do enjoy the attention and adulation that comes with winning, but that is not always their prime motivation. (Just after signing a very lucrative endorsement contract one world-champion whispered to me, “I’d do this for nothing, but don’t tell anyone!”)

In this overscheduled and achievement driven culture of ours, we have developed a non-rational notion about time and excellence. The idea that the sooner children get serious about a sport, or an event, the more likely they are to excel. Yet, there seems to be precious little evidence that this is the case. Yes, we have all heard the stories about gifted performers who were competing in major tournaments at a very young age. Stories like these are the unusual though. And in many cases – ones that don’t make it into human interest column of the sports page – the story line is one of burn-out, disappointment and even depression, as Olympian dreams are dashed by the often cruel realization that so few actually do get to wear the brass buckle, or receive the gold prize.

The more common scenario that produces the stellar performer is one in which it is the child who desperately wants to perform or compete, who enjoys the very doing of it. And the parents, who from afar often seem like stereotypical “stage moms and dads” pushing their kids to excel, are actually being pulled along in the wake of their child’s enthusiasm and zeal. When these parents keep a keen eye out for when and if the anxiety becomes too much, when their child “sees two targets,” they are then well-positioned to remind them to enjoy themselves, even when they do not win.

Here is the rest of that ancient wisdom:

His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting–
And the need to win drains him of power.

Some helpful tips for parents:


  • Make sure that the sport or competition is one that your child is choosing and not one that you are choosing for him/her. Many times children can pick up on unspoken messages that they should live out the dreams of their parents. They usually can’t, and probably won’t.
  • Encourage your child to develop an internal sense of excellence. With this internal barometer they are more inclined to see losing as information about their own current skill level, rather than the measure of their self-worth. Many champions speak very fondly of their “spectacular failures” – those moments of risk with no apparent reward. They report that later these experiences were crucial to their becoming champions in their events.
  • Pay close attention to the kinds of coaching your child is receiving – especially in the middle school and early high school years. Is she or he getting subtle messages that they are “special,” and that some of the rules don’t apply to them? That’s a red flag for sure, signaling trouble down the line.
  • Be there at the end. This is sometimes difficult to know, but often the attentive parent will have a sense when their child has reached the limits of their abilities. One parent I met on the practice field at a nationally competitive high school football program said (as he waited for his son to leave the field after being cut from the team), “I have enjoyed every game he has ever played, and I just wanted to be here to share this last memory with him.”
  • Don’t you just pay attention to your other children; make sure that your young performer is also supporting his or her siblings’ interests, and is cheering them on with just as much enthusiasm.
  • Show little (read no) tolerance early on for any tantrums after a loss. And check your own temper if necessary. Sadness and disappointment are certainly appropriate responses to losing. Anger is not. In the words of another world champion, “If you don’t know how to lose, you’ll never make it to the top step of the podium.”* From Quotations from Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

Edd Conboy, MS, MFT is Program Director of Council for Relationships’Avenue of the Arts office and a Senior Staff Therapist in Council for Relationships’ University City office. He can be reached at 215-382-6680 ext. 4313.