A National Alliance for Youth Sports resource helping coaches, parents and administrators provide the best youth sports experiences for children.
Helping your child appreciate adversity
By Linda Alberts
For many children, their first dance with adversity takes place in a sports setting, whether it’s a field, rink or court. One lesson children will take with them through life is that hard work doesn’t guarantee a reward – at least not the reward they had in mind.
They will come to this realization the first time their team doesn’t win a game despite giving an all-out effort. They will face this lesson again when they don’t make the team after the hours of practice and sweat.
As adults, they will face this harsh truth when they don’t get a job they interviewed for, are passed over for a promotion, or face any other disappointment despite their hard work.
What may seem to be a loss or unfair outcome is actually an opportunity to gain a new perspective in the face of difficult situations.
“For a child, not getting the reward they think they deserve isn’t a fun lesson to learn. Sports are one of the first activities to teach us that things don’t always go as planned,” says Dr. Renee Mapes, a licensed psychologist and Certified Sport Psychology Consultant (CC-AASP) through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “There will be bumps in the road, and that’s ok. Parents are in a prime position to teach kids how to appreciate adversity, and that they can learn a lot from disappointments.”
Kids need to learn how to navigate through disappointment. Mapes says one of the best ways to teach them how to do so is by seeing parents model the right behavior.
“Children hear what we say but more often they see what we do,” says Mapes, who owns Driven, which offers sport psychology and performance enhancement services to athletes, performers, coaches and teams at all skill and competitive levels.
The message parents verbally communicate with their child has to match their actions. It would only confuse a child if their parent discussed using disappointment as a learning tool, then shouted about bad calls from the stands.
“Entitlement is one of the broad range of symptoms that have come with the professionalization in youth sports,” Mapes says. “Kids who haven’t learned how to deal with adversity when things don’t go their way are more likely to give up on a sport sooner.”
Instead, young athletes should focus on the process, Mapes says. They should put their effort into learning skills, teamwork and working on what their coach says.
“It’s easy for kids to get frustrated when they’re externally focused,” says Mapes. “It’s better to focus on the process than what their record is going to be for the season.”
Mapes offers these tips to help parents teach their child how to appreciate adversity:
Model in your actions and in how you communicate with your child that adversity is to be expected and is a perfectly normal, healthy aspect of life (and in this case, sport). Develop a game plan with your child of how they would like to be treated after a disappointment (losing a game, bad grade on a test, fight with a friend, etc.).
Rushing into problem solving mode may inadvertently send the message that something has gone "terribly wrong" and requires immediate fixing. It may even reinforce the belief that some feelings need "fixing." Instead, reinforce the lesson that your child is loved and supported no matter what and that it's ok to not feel great all the time. Problem solve later, if appropriate, with your child's input (as appropriate).
If your child has a favorite athlete, they are likely familiar with aspects of that person's story that include disappointments and setbacks. Talk about how this person used the adversity they encountered to grow and improve. Point out examples of how your child has done this in the past as well, reminding them that it's ok to feel upset now and that their distress will most likely fade with time.
Help your child remember that their feelings do not dictate their choices and that acting out, talking back, blowing up, etc., should not occur no matter how upset they may be. Talk with them about effective ways to soothe their feelings if this has been an issue.
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