In Handling Failure/Adversity, Parents' Role in Youth Sports

When a young ball player strikes out with the bases loaded and his team loses the game, it doesn’t matter to him that he had gone 3 for 4 and knocked in three runs. In his mind, he lost the game for his team. Through his perspective, he is a complete failure! When an age group swimmer fails to get a best time in her best event at the championship meet, it doesn’t matter that she had the greatest season of her life. In her mind, her season was just proven a complete waste. Through her perspective, she is a failure! As the big basketball game approaches for the freshman squad, the team captain has convinced himself that this is the biggest game of his career, a game with important implications as to whether he gets asked up to varsity for next year. In his mind, if he plays poorly, then he will have just blown the biggest chance of his life! Through his perspective, this game is a “do or die,” “time to separate the men from the boys,” “there’s no tomorrow” situation.

Here’s the thing about your kids’ perspective: THEY DON’T HAVE ANY! Your children have not been on this planet long enough to have any objectivity when it comes to their “big games” or “really important” performances. Their view of success and failure, of their ability and potential is frequently skewed by what happens today. As a consequence, they are always vulnerable to blowing things terribly out of proportion. They are more likely to turn a great performance into a terrible one because of their perspective on how they performed.

Your job as a parent is to do your best to continually help them keep the bigger picture in mind. This means that when they have an absolutely dreadful performance, you help them understand that these bad performances are a normal and expected part of the sport, that you can’t always be at your best and that in every bad outing lie the seeds for long term improvement. That is, “what can you learn from this that will help you play better next time?” When they have a decent performance, your job is to help them appreciate what they did well by “underlining it” and at the same time, helping them begin to look for areas where they can improve. When they have an amazing performance, your job is to be sure that they are able to appreciate how well they played. If their perfectionism gets in the way and they want to view this good performance as a failure, then it’s your job to interrupt their negativity by pointing out what they did well and highlighting how unrealistically hard they are being on themselves.

When helping kids gain a perspective, it is never your job to focus them on what you think that they did wrong and then “helping” them correct their problems. Your job, instead is to be an unconditionally loving parent who continually tries to help your child see the bigger picture. Part of seeing the bigger picture involves downplaying the overblown importance of a game, match or race.

Young athletes have trouble keeping their sports performances in perspective because they are surrounded by other adults, coaches and parents who aren’t keeping the competition in prespective themselves! “This is a big game!” “If we win, we will move on to States!” “You’ll move up 10 places in the singles ranking if you can beat her!” Do not get caught up in this over-blown hype. If you do, you’ll be inadvertently contributing to your child-athlete’s poor performances. One thing that I can guarantee for you. If an athlete blows his/her performance out of perspective pre-competition, that is, if they make it too important, then they will be highly vulnerable to choking and other performance problems.

Help your kids see that this is just a game, that they are far more than a strike-out, slow time or blown save. Failure and loss in sport should never be used to define a child. This is NOT keeping the game in perspective!


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