My husband is the coach of our daughters' indoor soccer team -- ages 6 and 8 -- and they just won their league championship. I'm not writing this to brag but instead to tell you about how he coaches the girls. It goes something like this...
"Maggie! Get to the center! Maggie! Kick the ball! Follow the ball Maggie! Follow the ball! Kick the ball! Kick the ball Maggie! Kick it! Kick it! Great kick! Kick it again! Again! Again! Again! Maggie, go straight for the goal! Go for the goal Maggie! Keep going! Kick it! Again! Again! Get back up Maggie! You're ok! Great hustle! Keep going Maggie!..."
And so on and so forth. Mind you, he says all this within 20-seconds and with a smile on his face.
Maggie happens to be our daughter but my husband does this for every girl on the team. He tells each one of them where to stand, where to go and what to do. He tells them EXACTLY what to do. Over and over again like a broken record. At first, he'll get sideways looks from the opposing team's coaches, like he's cheating by being so precise and repetitive. But by the end of the game, they've not only adopted his style but his verbatim as well.
And the reason I tell this story is not because it's all about winning. In fact, isn't it all about not winning? Who we are in defeat? Our sportsmanship? Our resiliency? I tell this story because my husband's coaching is a model for us as parents. Kids want to be told what to do. They want to be told until they're able to figure it out themselves. And let me tell you, these girls LOVE playing on his soccer team. They cannot wait for the games.
What my husband is also doing is modeling how to talk to themselves in their head. Self-talk is how we make sense of the world, starting naturally and audibly during the toddler years and continuing internally as we get older. It's not just mechanical, but also evaluative. The problem is most kids don't know that they do it, let alone know how to do it well. For some, it can take on a negative, bullying tone even when things might be going their way. Simple word choices matter and the resulting impact can be subtle. Imagine the difference between two girls whose inner voices says "don't make a mistake" versus "mistakes make you stronger"?
For 40-minutes a week, my husband becomes a positive and productive internal monologue for these girls.
• He uses their first name. Calling ourselves by name rather than a pronoun creates an ability to gain control of impulses, focus our attention and reach new heights.
• He speaks with compassion and kindness. The idea here is to speak to yourself like you would your own best friend.
• He's specific with his praise. General compliments are unconvincing and will eventually ring empty.
• He maintains a positive, resilient attitude. He uses missteps as learning opportunities and definitely does not get mad at the girls.
• He repeats himself a lot. It takes practice to master positive self-talk.
Research shows that the sooner we develop a healthy internal monologue, the better. Children who exhibit positive self-talk are more likely to utilize it as an adult. As parents, we can start by pointing out it even exists in the first place. Then, the best times to practice are when something seems too hard or makes them nervous. This is when our inner voice turns especially negative, evident by sweeping statements like "I can't", "I never" or "I always". And while the tendency is to protect ourselves with low-balling statements, e.g. "if I get a B I will be happy" rather than "let's get an A", instead model for your kids to reach for the stars and how to bounce back if they miss the mark.
As they learn with our help to talk through situation after situation out loud, it'll become second nature to do it independently in their head. String enough of these experiences together and she's on her way.
We ordered team trophies because it's not often you get to be league champs. But the real celebration is not the girls' perfect record. It's their ever-clearer self-talk. I personally thank my husband for this.
For the rest of us, let's keep being that voice in their head.