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Dealing with Disappointment in Youth Sports

When kids lose a game, dealing with disappointment is an opportunity for growth.

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Updated June 27, 2014

Boys (8-10) walking towards goal, holding silver cup, rear view
Pascal Rondeau/Allsport Concepts/Getty Images

Your heart stops and your stomach drops: Your child is in perfect position to score a game-winning goal ... and then she misses. Or he's desperate to join the travel baseball team, but doesn't make the cut. If your kid plays youth sports, eventually you're going to be dealing with disappointment. Not every play, game, race, or even season will go the way he hopes it will.

The good news is that for your child, dealing with disappointment can—with your help—be a significant learning opportunity. "Self-esteem is not being able to say, 'I'm good at such and such'" sport, says child psychologist Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. "Kids figuring out their strengths, their own solutions? That's really how they learn resilience" and feel proud of themselves.

Dealing with Disappointment, Step One: Empathize

Begin by acknowledging your child's perception of what happened, says Chansky,who is the author of Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness. You don't need to agree with your child's statements that he's the worst player that ever lived or will never step foot on the playing field again. But you can empathize, and reflect his feelings, with statements like: "You are feeling so angry about this." Jim Thompson, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, says, "Your goal is to get your child to talk, so ask rather than tell. Save the telling for another time."

Step Two: Take a Break

Many times, kids need some time away from the game or incident before they are willing to talk about it. If your child's emotions are running high, it may help to tell her that you know she's upset, but she doesn't have to discuss it right now. Let her know that you'll be available when she is ready to talk.

Step Three: Get to the Root of the Problem

When the time to talk arrives, says Chansky, consider your goal for the conversation. "Eventually, you want him to be able to see this situation more accurately and not be led by his feelings," she recommends. Your words of encouragement won't stick if all he can do is picture, over and over, the moment when he bobbled the ball. Chansky recommends asking "What's the one thing that you are focusing on?" or "What was most disappointing to you about the tryout?"

If he can answer that question, then you can help him move on by gently shifting his focus to ways to improve his skills. He also may then be able to take note of things he did well during the game. If your child is a perfectionist, he's liable to think that one mistake sets a new (and unhappy) trend. Introduce the idea of the outlier, says Chansky. Ask him: If you catch 50 balls and miss one, what's the unusual event? The catch or the miss?

Step Four: Get Ready for the Next Time

Once you determine what the problem really is, help your child brainstorm ways to fix it. He might ask for suggestions from the coach, do some extra practice drills, or even come up with a mantra he can repeat if he feels anxious. Help him set some specific, attainable goals for the next game or practice. Then praise him when he achieves them!

When Kids Won't Talk

Depending on her personality, your child may show disappointment in different ways. She may be angry and destructive, in which case you need to help her find a way to channel that anger, such as by punching pillows or even growling.

If your child retreats when she's upset or sad, look for ways to draw her out. You might say, "I know you don't want to talk about it, but we need to figure out what really happened. Your feelings are making it much bigger than what actually happened," says Chansky. You can also try an indirect route. Ask her whether she thinks her favorite athlete ever makes mistakes, and how she handles them. You can say: "If a pro said she was a terrible player because of one bad day, would you agree with her? Would you say 'Yeah, I think you should quit?'"

"Disappointment is a great opportunity to reinforce positive character traits" like determination and resilience, says Jim Thompson. "We have a tool we call 'You're the kind of person who.' We say that to kids, followed by something like 'doesn't give up easily'; 'sticks to things'; 'bounces back'; 'doesn't let mistakes stop you from playing the game you love.' Hearing that begins to shape a kid's self-image."

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