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Ways to help teen athletes through mistakes and losses

Sports and athletics expose our kids to great things like teamwork, discipline, an active lifestyle and many other positives. But, our young athletes are also going to experience mistakes and losses. Those can be a little scary. As parents, we don't like our kids to be uncomfortable, so we try to move kids through those feelings as quickly as possible. By ushering them through the rough waters, however, we might be taking away their opportunity to build confidence.

Each of us want our young athletes to be confident. Sometimes we think by telling our players how great they are, how amazing they did and all the wonderful things about them is how we instill confidence. Truthfully, those are all great things to hear, but athletes need to go through situations where they struggle, where they lose tough games or make mistakes and then get back in there after enduring a rough situation. That is really where growth of confidence lies. 

Immediately after the game

After a tough loss or big mistake, it’s common to talk about it right away. Swooping in to help our child usually happens on the car ride home from competition. A lot of athletes I work with talk about the ride home. But, as I reflect upon my own rides home with my athletes, as a parent, it can start as soon as they get in the car. The questions start getting fired away: What happened out there? What was going on? It’s our parental nature to really want to dig in and get some information to start working through this conflict quickly.

Because it's uncomfortable for them, it's uncomfortable for us. Parents want to reflect on their experiences and life lessons and then share wisdom to make the situation better for their kids. What I end up hearing from most of my athletes who I work with is “I just need some time. Hammering me with questions right when I get into the car is not helping me when I clearly had a terrible game and when things did not go as well as I had hoped, or when I'm disappointed with the results of the game.”

Instead, for the ride home, give your athletes a little bit of time to process and decompress. Teens say it would be more helpful, and more wanted if the questions were phrased as, “Do you want to talk about what happened out there now? Or do you want to give it some time before we talk about it?” Most of the time your athlete is going to want time and kind of process through the situation a little bit on their own.

If we don’t allow them time, parents tend to jump in a start telling them what they thought happened and what they think and should happen next time. We don’t want to put our parental thoughts in place for them. This will probably be little bit uncomfortable for everyone on the car ride home, but at the end of the day it will help your child know they can deal with tough emotions and bounce back. If you can’t handle the silence, try turning on the radio.

Tips to overcome struggle

To help our young athletes handle mistakes and losses in sports, we can work with them on acceptance. It’s a part of sports and a part of competition. We can also teach them how to move past these moments so they don't get stuck and have those moments of struggle snowball into bigger issues. Two techniques I use with the athletes I work with center around mindfulness – outside of competition and actually in the competitive arena.

  1. Mindfulness. Outside of competition, encourage your athlete to practice mindfulness. Even if it is just three minutes a day, allowing themselves the opportunity to be quiet, sitting and focusing on their breathing, while understanding their thoughts and feelings will come into their mind. Having those thoughts “interrupt us” is a very human thing and it’s okay, but over time have them learn to come back to focusing their breathing. Practicing this on a regular basis for athletes is so incredibly important to prepare them for competition. By staying in the present moment, the athlete will learn how they can allow strong feelings and emotions to come in and at the same time honor them, access them and then let them move past.
  2. Train for the unexpected. The second piece is during competition - preparing for the unexpected. Everyone has an idea of how they think the game will go, or how they would like it to go. As a result, unexpected moments could derail an athlete. However, with training, an athlete can use a strong reaction following a mistake or event as a trigger to remind themselves to take a breath and refocus like a precision point. Focus back into what they are supposed to be doing, but also allowing themselves to have a reaction like “I can't believe that just happened.” And then taking a deep breath and immediately getting back into what they were doing.

I have not met an athlete yet who is comfortable with mistakes. Each one of them say it is the hardest thing to overcome within the moment. It’s natural for an athlete. Our athletes work incredibly hard, and they spend a lot of time honing their craft and making sure they are prepared for competition. The expectation is to go out there and do their absolute best and be as effective as they can for the team. But the truth is, as humans, even the most prepared athletes, as they continue to increase the level of competition and continue to push themselves to newer limits, mistakes and failures or are going to be a part of sport. We see it every day, even from professional athletes. 

Our athletes just need to know it's not the individual moment that makes or breaks them. The more they honor that fact, the better they will be at moving forward from mistakes and losses. And the more we, as parents, allow them to process their struggles, the more confident our athletes will become.

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Sports Mental Therapist