Emotional Tanks

Positive Sport Parents try to keep their children’s “Emotional Tanks” full.” A person’s “Emotional Tank” is like a car’s gas tank; when it’s full they can go most anywhere, but when it’s empty they go nowhere.

    Players with full Emotional Tanks are:

    • more coachable and likely to listen and respond without resistance
    • more optimistic
    • better able to handle adversity

    The “fuel” for a youth athlete’s Emotional Tank should be a mix of 5:1- five specific, truthful pieces of praise for each piece of specific, constructive criticism. Many parents find this hard to believe, because in our own experience they may have learned that coaching, teaching or parenting equaled “correcting,” and therefore, praise is not parenting. But a Positive Sport Parent who fills Emotional Tanks corrects their children correctly!  

    Inside the Emotional Tank

    Parents sometimes refer to “Tank Filling” as “happy talk.” But remember, the praises must be truthful and specific (i.e., not “Nice job, Ruth” but, “Ruth, I noticed in the second half your cuts to the goal were much sharper.”).

    Children are uncanny in detecting false praise and lose some of their respect for those who offer it and are then more closed to suggestion for improvement. In contrast, a major benefit of Tank Filling is that your children know you believe in them, and your praise boosts their confidence, so that they are willing and able to respond well to constructive criticism.

    The 5:1 ratio does not mean you must utter five praises immediately before correcting. That also would ring false. Rather, it means that generally you build your children up. Be sure your Tank Filling extends to non-verbal communication. You fill Emotional Tanks when you listen, nod, clap, or smile. Tank drainers include ignoring players, frowning, head-shaking, eye-rolling and negative yelling.

    An added value to filling your children’s Tanks is that it sets an example for them to follow in becoming Tank fillers themselves. Their teammates and coaches surely will appreciate that and being a Tank Filler is one of the hallmarks of a team leader.

    Tank-Filling Tools

    Here are some specific approaches to filling your children’s Emotional Tanks, consistent with the Positive Sport Parent’s role of focusing on the life lessons available through sports.

    "You're the kind of person who..." Statements. Positive Sport Parents have tremendous power to shape the way their children think about themselves. One way is through "You're the kind of person who..." statements.

    Telling kids "You're the kind of person who…," fills theirs head with a message that can stick for years. You can deliver messages that empower your children and help them think of themselves as capable people with positive character traits. For example: “I know it upset you that the defender beat you on that play, but I’m proud that you're the kind of person who learns from the mistake and picks yourself right back up. You handled it perfectly and stayed positive the whole game.”
    Of course, this phrase also works outside of sports. “Your Aunt Gladys just called to tell me you wrote such a nice thank you note. It’s great that you're the kind of person who really knows how to express gratitude."

    Kid-Friendly Criticism

    Parents must sometimes correct our kids to help them improve. But you can deliver this feedback with useable information that helps empower your children. For example, "You need to focus!" contains virtually no useable information, compared with, for example, “Remember that if your attention wanders, you can use a little self-talk to remind yourself to re-focus.”

    Use if-then statements

    To help your children feel in control even while you are advising or correcting, phrase your feedback in the form of an if-then statement. "If you tell your teammates that you feel left out of the offense, then there is at least a better chance they will pass to you more often.”

    Make a criticism sandwich

    “Sandwich” the criticism between a truthful, specific compliment on each side. The criticism is the meat, while the compliments are the bread. For example: “You usually do a great job of keeping a level head when one of your teammates makes a mistake. I noticed in the second half you did not have the greatest body language after Brandon dropped that pass. I know you’re the type of person who wants to be a great teammate, so I’m sure you can improve that body language next time.”

    With these Tank Filling Tools, you and your children are on your way to enjoyment, success and all the other life-lesson benefits of a Positive Sport experience!


In an effort to benefit millions of youth athletes, parents and coaches, this article is among a series created exclusively for partners in the Liberty Mutual Insurance Play Positive program powered by Positive Coaching Alliance.

©2014 Liberty Mutual Insurance and Positive Coaching Alliance. All rights reserved. This material may not be distributed without express written permission. Any reproduction in whole or part by and individuals or organizations will be held liable for copyright infringement to the full extent of the law.

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