11/24/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

When Not Making the Team Is a Victory

Erik Isakson via Getty Images

This past week, my son, Toby, was pretty much my hero. He tried out for his school's basketball team knowing that he had almost no chance of making it. The team is made up of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, and my son is a sixth grader who is one of the youngest in his class. On top of that, Toby is late to the game. While most of his friends began playing basketball in kindergarden, he just started last year -- baseball has always been his sport. Most of them play on travel basketball teams, while Toby has only played one season of basketball for the local rec team -- a highly noncompetitive team. Also, some of the main qualities one needs to be a good basketball player -- speed and aggression -- are not areas of strength for my son.

Despite all of that, my son decided to try out for the school basketball team. The tryouts involved a grueling two hours of drills every day after school for a week. The tryouts also involved a dreaded two-mile run around the school fields in the freezing cold. But Toby decided he was up for the challenge. From the start he made it clear that he thought making the team was a long shot. He decided it was worth trying out to let the coach know he was interested in order to increase his chances of making the team next year. He also thought it would be good practice for trying out for the school's baseball team in the spring. This was all very practical, but still, he was actively choosing to work his butt off for a week in order to face almost certain rejection. I had never admired him more.

Here's the thing: I know that working hard and not making the team will not crush Toby's spirit. I know, in fact, that it will actually help him build confidence by giving him practice in dealing with life's ups and downs. This is the kind of thing that I tell the parents whom I sit with in my office every week in my work as a family therapist. Generally, those parents believe me, but it is still tremendously hard for them to pull it off in reality. No one wants to watch helplessly while his or her child is in pain. But everything we know about how we can help our children become resilient adults points to the fact that this is something that we have to be willing to do as parents. In fact, an amazing study that is literally titled "Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability and Resilience," published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2010, actually provides some factual information about this. The study found that people who had experienced only some adverse life events had better mental health outcomes than those who experienced many adverse life events -- no surprise. But here's the kicker: Those people who had experienced some adverse life events also fared better than those who had experienced no adverse life events. In other words, those people who had some significant bumps in the road had an actual advantage over those people who had experienced only smooth sailing.

This is a powerful piece of information when it comes to the difficult task of being a parent. This is the piece of information I try to keep in the front of my mind when my children come up against life's disappointments. I sincerely believe in the outcome of this study, and the work I do with families backs this up time and time again for me. I see how helpless and unsure of themselves teenagers feel when their parents do not allow them to experience failure. I also see how easily kids can bounce back from disappointment -- as long as their parents do not give them the message that failing or being disappointed is a disaster.

Toby's week of tryouts also made me think about the usefulness of doing something that you are not particularly good at. Despite coming from a long line of terrible runners, I have run a half marathon every spring for the past three years. I was inspired to run by my best friend, who began running to raise money for research for a rare genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome, which her 7-year-old daughter was born with. My friend hates running as much as I do, and joining her seemed like the very least I could do to be there for her. I would like to tell you that my running has improved over the years, but I am still plodding along each year at a very average (okay, maybe slightly below average) pace. I still feel like I am a bad runner and that I am very unlikely to ever improve. But each year I feel an enormous sense of satisfaction that I did something hard that I was not good at, and I survived.

I believe that when we only attempt to do things we know we will be good at, we miss out on a lot. Doing something that is hard, or even humbling, is an experience that gives us practice for all of the times in life we will have no choice but to face the feelings that come with struggling to just get by. I never cease to be amazed and inspired by the courageous efforts to do something different that I see my clients attempt time and time again. There is nothing more difficult than interacting with the people you love in a new way -- whether it is to step forward and take a stand or to stand back and allow someone you love to make a choice that makes you uncomfortable. In order to do this, we have to be willing to do it badly at first. We have to be willing to push forward despite our hearts pounding and our palms sweating and despite the feelings of dread that things will not go well. If the goal is always success, there is so much we will not attempt at all. As Toby made clear this week, perhaps success is simply the willingness to take a risk and come out the other side. After a long week of tryouts, Toby found out on Friday evening that he did not make the team. Within half an hour, he was enjoying a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs and cheerfully talking about trying again next year. That's my boy.