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Sport and Competition

How to Deal With the “Agony of Defeat”

Losing sucks! How to deal with it.

Athletes differ a lot in their reactions to a loss. Some may be barely affected or may forget the loss almost immediately. Others will be virtually devastated and may be low-spirited for days. When you perceive that a young athlete feels down after a loss, you should give him or her a chance to feel and express the emotion. For example, if a youngster cries after losing, this is a realistic expression of depth of feeling and should be accepted as such. At a time like this, a child needs support from significant others, rather than a command to “toughen up.”

Respect and acceptance of feelings demands that parents and coaches not deny or distort what the child is feeling. For example, if a softball player struck out three times, she doesn’t want to hear, “You did great.” She knows she didn’t, and your attempts to comfort her may well come through as a lack of sincerity and understanding. Likewise, it isn’t very helpful to tell a child, “It doesn’t matter.” The fact is that at that moment it matters a lot!

What are some guidelines for parents’ and coaches’ post-game behavior after a loss?

  • Compliment the sport officials for doing a good job, and be sure to thank them for their contributions.
  • STOP focusing on whether your child/team won or lost.
  • LOOK for signs that indicate how the kids are feeling (facial expressions, tears, body language).
  • LISTEN to what the youngsters say before you provide input. Begin with a supportive comment, and then ask open-ended questions:
    “What part of the game did you enjoy the most/least?”
    “What was the best/worst thing about your individual performance?”
    “Were you satisfied with your effort?” If not, “What do you intend to do about effort in the future?”
    “What was the most important thing you learned from the game?”

What are some tips for helping young athletes deal with losing?

  • Don’t blame or get angry with your child/team. The kids feel bad enough already.
  • Avoid the temptation to deny or distort the feeling of disappointment. For example, it isn’t helpful to say, “It doesn’t matter.”
  • Point out something positive that was achieved during the game. Here are some things to say:
    “Great effort and improvement. Keep working hard, and winning will take care of itself.”
    “That was a tough one to lose, but your defense showed improvement. Stay with it, and it’ll pay off.”
    “Really good effort. That’s all anyone can ask. I’m proud of you.”
    “It never feels good to lose, but you showed terrific sportsmanship. Way to go!”
  • If a youngster hasn’t given maximum effort, communicate your unhappiness without putting him or her down as a person. Focus on the future and emphasize athletes owe it to themselves and their team to give maximum effort.
  • Ask your child/team, “Did you learn anything from this that you can apply in school and in other parts of your life?”

Do you want to learn more about parenting and coaching young athletes?

  • The Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports and Mastery Approach to Coaching are research-based videos that emphasize skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun.
  • To access the videos, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website.
More from Frank L. Smoll Ph.D.
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