I have coached youth sports since I was in high school. I am now in my mid-thirties. If there is one thing that has not changed, it is the child's dread of the car ride home. One thing almost every athlete had in common was how much they looked forward to hanging out with their friends before and after a game. The team would lose, the child is bummed, but then the excitement comes back when the post-game snack arrives. "Are we going to pizza?" "Can I go to Joey's house?" I find it amusing how some parents actually get upset when their child doesn't take a loss as hard as the parent thinks they should. Most parents seem to take the loss worse than the kids.
As your athlete gets older, the competition becomes better, and the stakes get higher. Losing means close to 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. There will come an age (usually around middle school) that your athlete will be aware of a poor performance. We learned a few years ago during the Super Bowl not to talk to an athlete right after the game (see Richard Sherman's post game interview). The emotions are still too high. 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.