Dealing with Disappointment
Young athletes will experience disappointment throughout their sporting careers, there's no avoiding it, it comes with the territory.
Here are some of the common situations they can face:
1. Losing or not meeting performance goals.
2. Not being selected or receiving desired playing time.
3. Dealing with injuries or setbacks.
4. Missing out on opportunities or not achieving expected outcomes.
5. Facing external pressure to perform.
There's sadly no escaping the fact that disappointment (or at best frustration) will be by far the most commonly experienced emotion. Normalising it, as parents, can help them to learn and adopt a healthy approach, ensuring their time in sport is an enjoyable one.
Understanding that no athlete can succeed all of the time and that numerous uncontrollable factors can influence a result, can help them to process loss in a more beneficial way. In fact, those who have been helped to acquire a growth mindset can even view these disappointments as learning/improvement opportunities. If you can help your athlete adopt a positive outlook like this, the future will be bright... and enjoyable.
One of the hardest challenges parents face is knowing how best to support their athletes after disappointing performances. Of course, actually asking them how they would prefer you to help is by far the most obvious way of finding out but, let's face it, this age group tend to be somewhat averse to conversations about feelings and emotions... especially if it's with a parent!! What works for one athlete probably won't work for another, so it's unlikely that copying what other parents do will work... though there's no harm in trying!
Dealing with Disappointment is Part of Being an Athlete
So, learning through trial and error will probably be your best strategy. You will quickly get to know what helps and what rattles them!! In the early days, trying to help can feel like the most thankless task ever, especially when nothing you say or do seem to be right! Remember that frustrations and upset are always taken out on the nearest and dearest... and that will be you!! Stick with it and the chances are
The athletes themselves will also be learning how to navigate their own disappointment. They will need to understand that ‘storming off’ the pitch/track or removing their vest/top in anger or frustration (usually applicable to boys!!), is seen as unsportsmanlike conduct and not viewed in a good light, by officials, spectators, or other athletes.
Between you, you'll discover a strategy that works effectively and that allows your athlete to gain valuable life skills that will contribute to overall growth, perseverance, resilience, and success in sports and beyond.
Dealing with Disappointment (An Athlete's View):
Alisha Rees, Scottish 60m & 100m Record Holder
Dealing with Disappointment (A Parent's View):
Cheryl Higgins, Mum to GB 400m sprinter Ben Higgins
Dealing with Disappointment (An Expert's View):
Phil Hurst, Former GB Athlete and Senior Lecturer in Sport Psychology
How You Can Help
Normalise disappointment: Let your child know it's normal to feel disappointed sometimes.
Acknowledge and accept that silence/non-communication is all part of them processing what happened. They sometimes need to shut everything out… including you! Don’t take this personally, it’s natural.
Only you will know whether your comments, intended as helpful/caring, are received in that way. If they’re not, again, don’t take it personally, maybe for them, a change of subject or silence will be a better strategy.
YOU can’t ‘make it better’ but you can help them to process it by reacting in a way that works for them. Communication on this topic is key.
Don’t take their negative emotional reactions personally. ‘Nearest and dearest’ will invariably receive an unfiltered emotional response. Maybe this is a cue to try a different strategy. Discuss this with them (if possible).
Try letting their coach be the first point of contact instead or maybe leave them more time to process it before commenting. Sometimes, leaving them to offload to friends first is a better approach.
Each athlete is different and how another athlete’s parents deal with these scenarios may not be right for you and your athlete.
Continued... there’s a lot to this topic!
There is ALWAYS something to take from a performance. No matter how bad.
Let your athlete be sad/angry if they want to be sad/angry
It is important to let out any emotion right away, then once that time has passed they can look at things rationally.
Don’t take your athlete being upset to heart. They will be totally fine.
Immediately after a disappointing performance, there is always an emotional response that has to be processed. Be aware that for some, this can be a lengthy and challenging process, especially for those who until now, have been used to winning. Learning to lose can be a steep learning curve.
In the early days especially, many will blame external factors like equipment and the weather. Encourage them to become more philosophical and to look for the changes/improvements that they can make that might produce a different result next time.
The phrase “losing is learning” can create a powerful growth mindset.
Take Home Point
What parents say and do following an athlete's disappointment can influence how easily they process the experience. Athletes cannot avoid disappointment and it is therefore important that they learn early on, how to process their emotions effectively. By adopting healthy coping strategies and a proactive approach they can not only safeguard wellbeing but also use the experiences to drive improvement and future performance enhancement.
Dreading the immediate post-defeat fallout and the silent car journies home benefits nobody, so finding ways to support your athlete that work for both them and you, should be a priority.
Recognise and address their feelings of disappointment and show empathy. Reminding yourself of the hours of training they devote to their sport can help you to better understand their frustrations. Defeat may not feel like a big deal to you but to them it is. Let them vent their frustrations and respect their need for solitude and, if they don't want to talk, respect this too!