Mastery Approach

Positive Sport Parents care about the scoreboard, but they care even more deeply about instilling a Mastery Approach in their children, which will help them win both on and off the field and throughout their lives.

As expert research has repeatedly proven, focusing solely on the scoreboard increases players' anxiety, because they can’t control the outcome on the scoreboard.

Ultimately, that anxiety undercuts self-confidence, which affects performance and takes the joy out of sports. Anxious athletes spend their mental and emotional energy worrying about losing instead of focusing on the current play and, of course, focusing on the current play is necessary for mastery and winning.

To keep your kids encouraged and engaged in their sports so they can learn life lessons, help them focus on what they can control. Control is critical to confidence!

    There are three key elements to a Mastery Approach and you can remember them with the handy acronym ELM  - Effort, Learning and Mistakes. Positive Sport Parents encourage their kids to “climb the ELM Tree of Mastery” by giving maximum Effort, committing to constantly Learning to continue to improve, and remembering that Mistakes are OK, because mistakes help us learn.

    The Elements of ELM

    If you’d like to introduce ELM  to your child, start with Effort.  Let them know:

    ELM Effort Learning Mistakes Youth sports

    1. You will always be proud of them as long as they give 100% Effort (regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard).

    2. You want  them to constantly strive to Learn and improve. This involves them comparing their own performance to their own performance (i.e., are they better than they were two weeks ago?).

    3. Remind them that Mistakes are an inevitable part of the game. If they are giving 100% and trying new things (as they strive to improve), mistakes are bound to occur, and you want your children to quickly bounce back from mistakes.

    More on Effort

    In sports, as in many other areas of life, people can take satisfaction from giving maximum effort. Regardless of outcome on the scoreboard (or, for that matter, your children’s report cards) if your kids know they gave it their best, they likely can endure disappointment and re-double their efforts.

    One way to persuade your children to keep making maximum effort is to reward them for effort, even when they do not succeed. “I know it did not turn out exactly as you hoped, Johnny, but I’m so proud of your effort I’m making your favorite dessert.” Gradually, they will realize that effort is its own reward, a value they will carry with them toward success in other aspects of life. 

    More on Learning

    Our kids can learn from success or failure. In fact, sometimes we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.  Reminding your kids that they are not failing so much as they are learning will keep them encouraged.

    In all other facets of their lives, your children will have to try new things. Sometimes they will succeed, other times not. The better you equip them to learn from success and failure, the more able they will be to adapt, learn, and improve through whatever life throws at them.

    More on Mistakes

    Mistakes often result from pushing the envelope, taking chances, stretching limits, growing and learning. Parents who overreact to mistakes cause their children stress and make them nervous about mistakes that they end up making even more or become so intent on avoiding mistakes that they play too tentatively.

    Consider establishing a Mistake Ritual, a physical motion you and your children use as a signal to move beyond the mistake and focus on the next play. If your child makes a mistake and looks to you in the stands, use the Mistake Ritual. Some of the best are the “flush" (making a fist, raising it, and then bringing it down in a flushing motion), "no sweat" (signified by flicking sweat off the brow), or "brushing it off" (shown by pretending to dust off the uniform ).

    Commitment to A Mastery Approach

    Using all three elements of ELM, Positive Sport Parents help their children go for greatness. Emphasizing Effort and Learning are terrific starts. The finishing touch is to let them know Mistakes are OK, especially if they Learn from their Mistakes and continue giving full Effort.


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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