How to deal with Your Young Athlete after a Loss

How to deal with Your Young Athlete after a Loss

Two weekends ago was an incredible time for sports. NFL Draft, NBA Playoffs, Kentucky Derby, and a not-very-exciting boxing match titled “Match of the Century.” With everything going on at the highest levels of sport you may have missed a pretty important statistic. The individuals at TrackingFootball.com wrote this article about research they did on all 510 players from the previous two years of NFL draft picks and found that 85% were multi-sport athletes in high school. For quarterbacks, it was 95%.

What does this have to do with losing? When a stud soccer player joins the basketball team they move from team captain to an average player. Facing this kind of adversity challenges an athlete to learn new skills and deal with not being the best player.

What happens next: mental toughness.

This past basketball season I took a break from varsity sports and coached a group of 5th and 6th grade girls through the YMCA. Most of them were primarily soccer players; only a few players had played before. I wrote a short article on how to teach shooting a basketball you can find here. We were overwhelmingly inexperienced, however, we only lost a few games. Why? Because I took soccer drills and made them basketball drills (thank you, YouTube). It only took a few weeks for the soccer players to develop the basic skills of shooting and passing with their hands instead of feet. It was a very fun and successful season.

My girls couldn’t care less what the score of the game was so long as there was a snack afterward. The parents always took the loss worse than the kids. As your athlete gets older, the competition becomes better, and the stakes get higher. Losing means nothing to most 5th and 6th graders, but as you move into middle school and high school the losses sting a little more. Some teams/coaches/parents put much more pressure on their athletes to win. If you find your athlete in the dumps because of a defeat, here are some tips on what to say on the way home that will help your athlete cope.

On the way home: shut up. Trust me, I am saving you from a fight with your kid. Your athlete knows what they did wrong and is trying to process it. Wait until they engage you in a conversation. It may take a few games, but eventually they will open up and want to talk…as long as they know you will not lecture them. Otherwise you will just be another source of frustration for them.

Validate their feelings. It’s okay to be upset – it means they care. Anger, frustration, annoyance and fear are common responses to losing. Express empathy and be happy your child is experiencing a little difficulty in their world. They won’t break; they are much stronger than you give them credit for.

Lastly, if it’s a short conversation, let it be short. Just know the best thing for them right now is to figure out this new emotion. You have had 20 plus years to learn how to deal with loss. This is new to them. Trying to force a lesson after a loss is the absolute wrong time to try and be parent of the year. It’s counter-productive and will most likely end in an unnecessary fight.


James Leath is a youth sports psychology consultant with over 15 years experience coaching young athletes. He writes a weekly note to athletes, coaches and parents on subjects that pertain to sports psychology, youth sports, and personal development. He is currently finishing his masters in Performance Psychology and lives in San Luis Obispo, CA. You can sign-up for his weekly note here, find him on twitter at @jamesleath, or visit his website jamesleath.com.

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