Photo: Julia Pleskachevskaia (Shutterstock)
Enrolling your kid in sports can help keep them active, teach them to work with a team, and build their confidence. But sports also have the effect of separating participants into winners and losers, which has the potential to evoke some pretty crushing emotions in a child. To help your kid manage the big emotions that come after losing a hard-fought game, “you want to prepare kids for losing by giving them a healthy philosophy on winning—one that doesn’t depend on the score at the end of the game,” said Frank Smoll, a sports psychologist and a collaborator on the Youth Enrichment in Sports project, which offers evidence-based strategies for effective coaching.
Part of helping your child cope with losing is teaching them that “you can be successful regardless of the score at the end of the game if you put forth your best effort and have done the best that you can do,” Smoll said. “What more can you ask of athletes, at any level?”
Don’t sugar-coat the loss
When your kid just lost a game, your impulse may be to immediately try and help them feel better about what happened. Although comforting them can be helpful in the long-term, when the hurt from the loss is still fresh, it’s important to honor their feelings. “It does hurt to lose,” Smoll said. “You don’t want to sugarcoat it.”
Depending on your child’s personality, they may have different ways of coping with the immediate effects of a loss. Some kids may want to be comforted, while others may want to be left alone. Some may want to go into post-game analysis right away, while others may want to hold off on talking about the game.
Stop, look, and listen
When your kid just lost a game, and you want to help them cope with the loss, Smoll recommends a “stop-look-listen” strategy. “You want to stop focusing on whether the team won or lost. The game is over,” Smoll said. “Look for signs that indicate how the kids are feeling.” That includes looking at their facial expressions and body language to get a sense of how they’re handling it. And then, “listen to what they say before you dominate. Let them self-express,” Smoll said. “Let them have a say and then ask some probing questions.”
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Focus on the achievements and lessons
Once you’ve had a chance to assess how your child is coping with the loss, then it can be a good time to focus on the aspects of the game that were independent of winning or losing the game: things like what they did well, showing good sportsmanship, exhibiting persistence, or trying out a new skill they’d been working on in practice.
“It’s about learning and growing,” said Patrick Cohn, a mental performance coach at Peak Performance Sports. “It’s also about teamwork, cooperation, confidence, and learning how to perform under pressure.”
This can also be a time to talk about what they learned from the loss, and what they are planning to work on for the next game. “Losing gives you a good perspective on where you stand relative to skills,” Smoll said. “There’s something to be gained from winning, and there’s a lot that can be learned from losing as well, if you’re prepared for it.”