The ups and downs of competitive sports, wining one day and losing another, can be incredibly challenging for the average adult let alone the typical adolescent, just years out of puberty. A child’s inability to effectively manage his or her emotions in the face of failure even after hard preparation, can often lead to self-deprecation, low self-confidence, and ultimately, youngsters can end up quitting sports altogether.
Standing on the sidelines watching your child, it’s easy to get frustrated not knowing what steps you can take to help them help themselves. Unfortunately, many parents throw in the towel, resolute in the idea that “some people have it, some don’t,” but that’s a mistake. The propensity one has to cope with adversity can’t be likened to personality traits or physical stature. It isn’t inherited, it’s not genetic, and it’s also not something we just pick up along the way.
Mental fortitude is a skill that must be taught, and like most other skills, it can be finely honed over time. Your son or daughter’s capacity to manage difficult situations and come out on top is almost directly determined by the actions you take in their upbringing, and in how you teach them to react to the environment around them. When children are taught to take accountability for their failures, and to accept criticism in a positive manner, they can better channel negativity into resiliency, strengthening their mental skill. When they can grasp the bigger picture and see a minus result as simply a step in a bigger process, they can begin to focus on total control, and can work determinably on their form and technique. These are the qualities of professional athletes; making positives from negatives.
The world’s top athletes share the same character traits. They’re all self-driven and determined, alert and actively calculating. For the most part, they have full control of their emotions, a positive, can-do attitude, and most notably, are adept in taking accountability for their actions. So the question is, what steps can you take now to ensure your child ends up in the same place?
First of all, recognize that your role as a parent is to support your child, to be understanding and empathetic, and not to critique their performance. Leave that to the coaches. Instead, you should be pushing them to take accountability for their results. Tragically, in an effort to assuage a child’s negative reaction to poor results, parents often square blame elsewhere; “the field was too wet,” or “that other kid is too aggressive.” Such comments are destructive. Children who are taught to take ownership for failure, and for success, are more likely to develop perspective and learn from every experience. Push them to ask questions of themselves like “what could I have done better?” or “what do I need to work on to be successful next time?”
Next, instill in them good sportsmanship. Show them that adopting a good attitude, and keeping composure in the face of failure is a win in itself. It’s ok to be angry or sad, and it’s normal to feel disappointed or frustrated. Encourage inward and outward reflection. Demonstrate that winning and losing are not synonyms for success and failure, but are instead mere checkpoints, opportunities for self-discovery. Kids need to be shown that the pendulum swings both ways, and that it is irrational to expect constant wins or improvements. Ask them if they think their sports heroes have never lost a match. What’s critical at the end of the day is whether they believe they gave their best, and if not, that they know what they need to work on.
Absolutely do not be that terrible parent who internalizes failure and berates their children for poor results. We’ve all seen them; these are the parents who argue with coaches and heckle other parents. Nothing will destroy a child’s confidence faster than feeling that they aren’t worthy or that they aren’t measuring up, and a child who fears failure will be stressed out, heading into life in the wrong mindset. Do not compare their results with those of peers or siblings. Instead, encourage positive thinking. There are always constructive takeaways; find them, and celebrate them. The game may have been lost but that doesn’t mean your child didn’t win – maybe as a pitcher, he threw a difficult curve. Or as a goalie, she had an excellent save. Show them that the only targets that truly matter are the ones they set for themselves.
Finally, encourage your child to try many different sports. Often, a child who has difficulty with one discipline may excel in another. Give them the opportunity to really shine. At the end of the day, if your child is healthy and having fun, isn’t that the point of it all?