A National Alliance for Youth Sports resource helping coaches, parents and administrators provide the best youth sports experiences for children.
Failure: Why it's actually good for your young athlete
By Linda Alberts
It’s inevitable. Everybody has to face coming up short of a goal. There will come a time when your child will miss their mark. They will miss the net during a penalty shot or strike out with the bases loaded. They will receive a poor grade on a test or not get the job they want.
By every definition of the word, they will fail at something at some point in their life.
And that’s ok.
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden was quoted as saying, “If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes.”
Even with these words of wisdom from a coach people look toward for inspiration and motivation, why does failure cause so much distress for young athletes – and even their parents?
Maybe the first step to overcoming failure is to erase that word from your vocabulary.
“Failure is a destructive word others use to describe events when they don’t achieve their goal,” said Craig Sigl, a mental toughness trainer who has worked with hundreds of young athletes.
Sigl says that one of the biggest problems athletes come to him with is the fear of failure.
“I teach that there is no such thing as failure,” he said. “It doesn’t exist except as a useless story in the mind. If you get rid of the idea of failure, you get rid of the fear of it.”
Getting hung up on the fear of failing or focusing on the wins and losses distracts athletes from learning opportunities that occur when a goal is not met.
“It may seem counterintuitive, but failure is the greatest teacher,” said Dr. Jim Afremow, mental game coach, licensed professional counselor and author of The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive. “We learn best by making mistakes or experiencing disappointments, and then growing from them. Defeat and disappointments are an integral part of sports and life – but it’s how we respond to them and learn from them that makes us truly successful.”
After experiencing a disappointment in sports, athletes can do one of two things. They can either feel bad about themselves and the outcome of the event or they can learn from what happened and come back stronger and smarter, says Sigl.
“Resilience is paramount to building confidence,” he says. “Confidence cannot be built in the presence of fear. When you conquer anything difficult, you don’t fear it anymore.” He added this applies to anyone from small children to adults.
When parents try to prevent their child from experiencing failure, like discouraging their child from trying out for a team or playing a new sport, or not letting their child handle their own problems, they are taking away valuable life skills and learning opportunities.
“Children who are over-protected are led to believe that success should always be quick and easy, but that only leads to greater frustration when it’s not,” said Afremow. “Parents who are afraid for their child to fail are going to hold them back and ensure defeat.”
Afremow suggests that parents look for ways to help their children have experiences in which they accomplish something to feel proud about by engaging in a variety of activities that are challenging and doable.
“Long-term success is always more important than short-term results,” he said. “Think as failure as feedback, not something to be feared or fended off. A defeat is a temporary event and doesn’t have to negatively affect other parts on your child’s life.”
So even if your child strikes out at the end of a game, leaving runners on base when a hit would have won it for them, for example, your child will become a better baseball player and build his confidence as an athlete and person by learning what happened at the plate and why, and knowing how to handle similar situations next time.
LEARNING FROM DISAPPOINTMENT
Sigl offers four steps for parents to take to help their child learn from disappointment:
1. Acknowledge and allow the child to express their feelings after the event
If your child is in the mood to talk about the game and the difficulties, let them express their feelings but don’t give solutions or explanations to the child’s feelings of disappointment, anger or frustration.
Instead, say something that acknowledges their feelings, like “I hear you. That must have been tough when it happened,” or “I don’t blame you for feeling that.”
Do not try to change the child’s mind or take their words literally. The last thing you want to have happen is the child learns to keep quiet after experiencing difficulty because they don’t feel safe to express feelings without getting backlash or a lecture from their parent.
2. After emotions subside, help them see the silver lining to the dark cloud
After the child calms down, only then will it be time to give them a healthy perspective on the game and the difficult events. This might be in an hour or even a day later. You need to read their mood.
For example, you could say something like this:
“You know when the coach did X yesterday you mentioned that you thought it was because of Y. I’d like to help you out for your future playing days by telling you that the real truth about the coach is Z. I am here to tell you how proud I am of you in getting through that. It makes you a better, stronger player and you’ll know what to do and think next time, right? How do you feel about things today?”
3. Inspire them by reminding them of their proven strengths and abilities
This is ongoing during the days following a difficult experience. Whenever appropriate, and when you have their full attention, say things out loud, like:
“You know, you are one of the fastest players on the team and a team player. I love watching you out there.”
“I want you to recognize that you have a real strength out there. You always seem to be in the right place at the right time.”
Shower it on them – but the compliments must be believable and sincere.
4. Label them as someone who always comes back or is a “comeback specialist”
Labels are very powerful and people tend to live up to them. Parents can do this by repeating a simple word or two to the child regularly, often, and for no real reason, just in passing in the home.
“Hey, Lisa, the comeback specialist,” or “How’s my soccer powerhouse doing today?”
This gives the child an identity and becomes a mental foundation that they can build confidence around. Come up with something that is based on truth and be consistent about using the label.
Helping children learn life lessons through failure and disappointment that everyone experiences while competing is an important role for coaches and parents to handle. Are you ready for it?
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