The Long Ride Home: Supporting Your Kid After a Tough Loss

It can be hard to watch your kid struggle during competition. Maybe they’re nervous, they’re facing a tough opponent, they’re distracted or just not playing their best. Every kid has difficult games and days where they don’t play at their best. While it can be stressful or frustrating to watch, it’s important to remember that every off day or tough game is an opportunity for a kid to learn how to cope with challenge and disappointment. It’s ok for kids to experience distress and challenge– in fact, it’s crucial to development. When it comes to mental health, the goal isn’t to remove every challenge or situation that causes distress or disappointment. Rather, the goal is to develop the words and the tools to be able to effectively express frustration and disappointment, cope with challenges, and become more resilient. Here are a few strategies for supporting your kid after a tough loss or poor performance: 

  1. Post-game conversations can start before the game. It can be helpful to set the tone before an athlete competes by highlighting intentions that aren’t dependent on the athlete’s outcome or performance. For example, “have fun out there,” “do your best,” “I’m excited to see you hustle out there.” If it’s a big match, trust that your athlete understands the stakes. Reminding them, “This is a big game. You have to play your best,” is likely to add stress and is just reminding your athlete of pressure that they are already well aware of. 
  2. After the game is over, there’s no need to rush to have a conversation. Ask your athlete if they want to talk about their performance. Or ask an open-ended question, “how are you feeling?” 
  3. If they’re ready to talk, encourage reflection. Rather than explaining to your kid what they did wrong or how they could’ve done better, ask them questions that encourage them to reflect on the match. “What did you think went well today?” “What was something that was particularly challenging?” “What do you want to work on next time?” “What were you saying to yourself after a mistake?” “What did your opponent do well?” 
  4. Help them identify something they are proud of. Maybe they’ve been practicing really hard lately and part of why they’re so frustrated is that they don’t feel like it’s translating to their performance in games. Even if it’s just one point, “I made a great pass when I first got on the field” or “I’m proud of how much work I put in this week.” Athletes can avoid black and white thinking (it’s all good or it’s all bad) by identifying instances of solid effort or skill even on an overall tough day.  
  5. Offer encouragement and share something you noticed that made you proud. “I’m proud of you for continuing to hustle even when you were down.” Or, “I know it was a busy week at school and I’m proud of you for prioritizing getting a good night’s sleep and showing up ready to go today.” 
  6. If they’re open to more technical feedback or have a specific skill they are frustrated with, you can bring it up and see if they would like to talk about it in more detail. If they shut down or shrug it off, “I don’t know,” “I don’t want to talk about it,” just drop it and focus more on validating their feelings, listening, or just giving them some space to unwind. 
  7. Silence is okay! Feel free to ask – “Hey do you want to talk about the game?” And let it be if they say no. Or simply turn on some music or a podcast and give them space to bring up the game on their own time. 
  8. Sometimes we just have tough days– that’s ok too! There isn’t always a solution to poor performance or an off day. Letting your kid know that they’re human and sometimes disappointments happen is a great reminder. Learning to let go of the things we can’t control and not ruminate on every aspect of performance is a valuable lesson too. 

Tough matches, poor performance, frustration, losses, and disappointments are inevitable. As a parent, you have a huge opportunity to help your kid learn how to respond to challenges and disappointments on the field and in life. Helping them learn how to express frustration, how to avoid black and white thinking (ex. I lost the game so everything I did today was bad), and how to learn from mistakes and challenges is crucial to helping them become a more discerning, reflective, and resilient player and person.

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