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All parents know that sports are a great way for kids to get physical exercise, learn the value of practice and teamwork and of course, sports are also the best at creating near impossible logistical carpooling challenges, especially when you have more than one child. But there’s something more that sports provide: the opportunity to manage winning and losing. Because parents feel everything that their child feels, managing emotions in sports becomes at least a two-person job. Which is why parents approach their children’s sports activities with a combination of their own excitement and dread as they ponder the impending vicissitudes: the thrill of success, and the agony of defeat—not the euphemism, the real uncensored deal, the rolling on the ground, the tears, the cursing— registering in every fiber of their child’s being and right there for everyone to see.
Kids may start out with the best intentions and grip on their emotions picture— the Norman Rockwell crack of the bat, roar of the crowds— but with the first error (or perceived error) things degenerate quickly and it’s Jackson Pollock on a bad day. There’s the pre-game freak out, the post-game melt down, the throwing down of the glove, bat, or whatever the case may be, followed by the “I hate everything, everything stinks, I quit” self-recrimination rant that occurs once the doors auto-shut on the mini-van.
Why is it that some kids can’t lose? Is it the parents, ueber focused on getting them on a Division One team in college, whose pressure makes it impossible for kids to accept anything else but beyond the best? While there is no doubt that those success-crazed parents gone wild don’t help and need to be benched themselves, usually they only broadcast in stereo the message going through a child’s own mind: winning is everything; losing is the end of the world as we know it.
It’s also clear that our culture is out of whack, witness the 5:00 am sports practices, travel tournaments for 2nd graders, and cut-throat competition for all. While rectifying these variables will certainly improve the outcome, it will not eliminate the problem of kids who fall apart in the face of defeat. Especially since many of these kids fall apart even with just the anticipation of defeat. So losing isn’t the real disaster for these kids, their relationship to losing, is the disaster.
We have all been witness to the poor sports and in those moments we thank goodness it’s somebody else’s kid freaking out this time and not ours. But if you’re a parent, chances are your number will come up, and you will be that family too. Until you can help your child change the news feed in his/her mind about what just happened, no reassurance or tough love will be a match for the wrath or despair of your miserable girl or boy in cleats.
What’s it all about? Are kids being bratty sore losers, or is there call for compassion?
No one likes to lose, but for some kids losing isn’t a superficial scratch on the ego, it goes deep. In fact the reason why some kids have trouble losing is that they can’t hold on to who they were before the loss; instead, no matter how many successes they had under their belt, the loss transforms them irrevocably into a loser. It’s as if each game is a gamble where they put all their chips on the table, and if they lose, they’re cleaned out of all of their assets. If this is starting to sound like some of the adults you know, including yourself, read on, the solutions are pretty much one size fits all.
The secret to a successful season isn’t just choking up on the bat, getting your stance right, swing and repeat… it’s building up your muscle to lift yourself out of disappointment, and quickly. Even if your child is putting in hours everyday practicing, the way that he or she is going to succeed in sports (and in life) is to make friends with, or at least not be mortal enemies with, losing.
In sports more than any other arena, losing is a built-in. Sometimes it’s you, sometimes it’s the other team, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. And yet, for many kids, it’s like they never saw it coming and it knocks them flat on the ground. The more that kids can re-think what it means to lose, the more they will be resilient athletes—not only bouncing back from disappointments, but coming back stronger, because they’ve made use of what went wrong to improve— for the next time— what they can do right.
These strategies will help your child maintain perspective when there are those disturbances in the field and put the bounce back in the ball, and in your child’s spirit.
We all want to protect our kids from disappointment, but the more that kids can see that disappointments are survivable, ordinary moments of life, the less they will stumble and get stuck. Children will not only be more resilient and more willing to get in there and play, they will probably play better because they are not doing battle with themselves on the field (let alone how much more pleasant the rides home will be).
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