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Disturbances in the Field: Eight Strategies to Parent a Resilient Athlete

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It's after April 15, the taxes are in the mail, and now it's time to tackle the real challenge of spring -- little league. Well, not exactly, but all over the country, kids of all ages are gearing up for the new season of sports, from little tikes to varsity players. Parents are approaching this rite of childhood with a combination of excitement and dread as they ponder the impending vicissitudes: the thrill of success, and the agony of defeat -- not the euphemism, the real deal -- 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 helicopter parents, über 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.

Empathize, Empathize, Empathize! Though it's tempting to rush in and reassure or correct your child's thoughts and feelings (by saying, "don't feel that way, don't say that, that's not true!"), this will only make them get more upset because rightfully so, they feel you haven't heard them. Instead reflect what they are saying, "this feels like the worst day of your life," or, "you feel like you're the worst player." Empathizing doesn't mean agreeing with their conclusions, it means accepting that this is your child's state at this moment. By hearing his or her thoughts played back, children are often able to move beyond the feelings and recognize how they are different from the facts, "I feel that way, but I know it's not true."

Lower the Stakes, not the Standards: Separate your Child's Value from the Outcome of the Game. Your child's value as a human being isn't at stake every time he steps on the field (it only feels that way to him), his value is a permanent possession. Don't dispense with the importance of playing well, but dispense with the inaccurate interpretation of what it means to lose: ask your child what it means to him if he loses, and then ask him to think what it really means in life. What is the interpretation that the coach has? The other players? Even MVPs lose games and strike out -- lots of games, lots of strike outs. It doesn't mean you are a loser or even a bad player, it's one moment in time. The outcome of the game is temporary and changeable, your value, permanent and only will improve with effort.

Find the Wins within the Losses and Learn from the Mistakes: While every game or event has winners and losers, the real loss is when your child doesn't give credit where credit is due. Ask your child what went well. Don't let her dispense with the credit just because it is easy for her. While your child is critical of the one thing she did wrong, she will be dismissing and devaluing the things they did well, because in the all-or-none game, if you can't do it all, you lose. Not so. Look at professional athletes -- the best hitters have the most errors, the best basketball players can't master the free shots.

Help make the crisis an opportunity for learning how to improve: have your child analyze like a detective what went wrong and see if there are things to make it happen differently next time (practicing a particular skill, staying focused on the game).

Separate the Feelings from the Facts and Ditch the Absolutes: When we're upset our feelings are extreme, fortunately the facts are not. Best way to point this out is to simply reflect back what your child says and remind him that feelings are strong at first, but they pass; they don't last forever. So, if your child says: "Everyone is better!" you say, "It feels like everyone is better than you -- is that what you really think is true, or just how you are feeling right now?"

Listen and help your child correct the absolutes: "everyone is better" becomes "some people play better, some don't", "I never do anything right," becomes, "I usually play well, this was a tough game." "I stink at everything" becomes "I am strong in pitching, I need to practice my fielding more."

Identify the Outlier: When perfectionistic kids make a mistake, they assume that error redefines their life, starts a new trend for them as a loser. Help them see that exceptions here and there do not make a new rule, separate their baseline playing from the outliers or exceptions that are going to occur.

Identify Where Your Child is On the Learning Curve: Ask your child when she started to learn how to _______. Think through with your child about how long it will take to learn a new skill and how she will know when she has mastered it. Ask your child to draw a curve and make an X to denote her current position.

Control What You Can: Set Your Own Personal Goal: Help your child go into a game with one or two ideas about what she wants to do differently in this game, that way regardless of the outcome of the game, your child can circle back to the goals and see how she did with the part she could control.

Bring in the Pros: How Would Your Favorite Player Narrate the Story? Identify with your child one or several athletes who they look up to and "ask" (imagine) what they would say about a tough game. Imagine or research how they have dealt with their own challenging games. Every sport has examples of winners who also lose, this is the norm. Take Ryan Howard, first basemen of the Phillies, who won MVP in 2006. In that year he had more home runs and RBIs than any other player in major league baseball, AND, had 199 strikeouts in 2007, the all time strikeout mark for a hitter in a season! If Ryan were telling the story, he'd probably say, don't let those losses get in the way of your success!

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).

© 2009, Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

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