Parenting Athletes

You Can’t Have One Without the Other

One of the most difficult aspects of coaching is dealing with disappointment, loss and frustration. Team tryouts and cuts, or a big loss to a historical rival can sometimes leave coaches searching for the right thing to say to the athlete, parent or team all looking for answers. What can often make these circumstances worse are a parent’s response to their child’s sadness, upset and disappointment. Oftentimes, instead of just considering being cut from a team as a natural part of life and a learning experience, parents get irrationally angry and seek to blame the coach by undermining his or her decision in any way possible. I understand that. I’m a Mom too. We want to save our kids from all kinds of hurt in life. Yet, parents need to have greater faith in their kids’ ability to deal with hardship. I truly believe that, in life, you can’t have joy and success without disappointment and failure.

I started thinking about all of this “failure and success” stuff after seeing the Pixar movie Inside Out (twice in two days I might add because I wanted both my sons to see it and grasp it’s message). In the movie, emotions serve as characters inside Riley’s head. “Joy”, the domineering character in the film, will do most anything to promote happiness and shutdown her fellow emotion, “Sadness”. Warning Spoiler Alert. As the movie unfolds Joy comes to see that Sadness plays an equally important role in Riley coming to terms with her family’s recent move from Minnesota to San Francisco.

Fact of the matter is, our kids need sadness and disappointment as much as they need joy and accomplishment. Our job as parents and coaches is to help young people navigate these social and emotional hardships. And, when they come out on the other side, they see that they really are OK. This is precisely why one of my favorite children’s books is Alexander and Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day (by Judith Viorst). Life is filled with difficulties. In fact, sometimes we have whole days filled with disappointment. Thankfully, tomorrow is another day and we get to try again to be better and do better. As I tell my athletes: nothing lasts forever, not the good stuff and not the bad stuff. So we had better be prepared for both.

When we have helped our children manage their sadness, disappointment, setbacks and rejections we have helped them develop one more life skill, one more bit of confidence that they can use when we are no longer there to save them from what hardships life dishes out. We can’t be afraid of their failure. We have to teach them to move past it. That’s what it means to be resilient. Sports are a great vehicle for teaching these life lessons because they serve as a microcosm for life. What happens with the team and on the field and the decisions we make in the game will undoubtedly serve us off the field as well.

It is possible that not everything can be accomplished when someone is always happy. It is possible our greatest success blooms from our deepest sadness and loss. In her 2008 commencement speech at Harvard University, J.K. Rowling pays tribute to her own failures and how they set her free to create Harry Potter. After experiencing poverty with a child to support Rowling says,

“I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Teach your child to climb - don't carry them up the mountain.

Teach your child to climb – don’t carry them up the mountain.

Imagine that! Rock bottom was the motivation behind one of the greatest children’s literature series ever created. I found this to be amazing! So what do we say to our kid when he or she is cut from a team, or makes the team yet sits the bench? If you want it you must earn it. You must work harder, play harder, and be so good that you become a force on the field to be reckoned with.

Parents, it’s okay to let go. You can stop protecting your child from sadness, disappointment and failure. Instead, help her build her own armor of protection;  help him create tools for his life toolbox. Send them out into the world knowing how to manage failure so that it ultimately leads to quite possibly their greatest success.

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