Losing at sport can be an emotional event for a child. Here’s how adults can nurture kids’ resilience

Losing at sport can be an emotional event for a child. Here’s how adults can nurture kids’ resilience
  • PublishedMarch 25, 2024

I used to secretly eye-roll watching my three-year-old child play a 10-minute chase-and-tag water game in her half-hour swimming lessons.

Where’s the skill development in that, I’d think. It was a statement more than a question.

If I had encountered the advice of Melbourne-based provisional sports psychologist Darren Godwin at that time, I’d have ditched the eye-rolling sooner.

He says in sport, a parent’s priorities and those of their child are sometimes mismatched.

“A lot of the time, kids are really just … in the moment and enjoying the experience that they’re having,” he tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.

With red running track visible in background, a child sits with legs crossed and hands propping up bowed head.

Losing at sport can pack an emotional punch for some children.(Getty: SGiardina)

“From an adult perspective, we see it a different way because we understand and process the concepts [such as] fairness and scores and winning and losing and game time.

“It’s a different experience for the child. So it’s definitely something to be really mindful of.”

By focusing on progression, I was ignoring the fact that my three-year-old dived happily into the pool each week and emerged from her classes beaming.

She was learning to love the water. She was learning to love sport.

And that could have huge impacts on her development.

Why sport matters

Sport can impact a child’s life in more ways than you might think.

It can help children develop better ways of coping with the highs and lows of life, explains Sarah Jefferson, a senior lecturer in education at Edith Cowan University.

“Recreational and competitive sport plays a really good protective role for kids during adolescent years,” she says.

“Protective” factors are those help individuals, families, communities or the larger society deal more effectively with stressful events.

Playing sport is an excellent way to develop a “growth mindset” — the idea that we can learn and get better in the face of challenges — something that fosters persistence and positive long-term outcomes.

And sport can hold up a mirror to other aspects of our lives.

“The reality of life is you are not always going to get picked for the jobs that you want, you’re not always going to get picked for the social event that you want to go to. Life is filled with these experiences,” Dr Jefferson says.

Resilience, grit, the ability to rebound and perseverance are just some of the skills playing sport can help a child to hone as they grow.

Challenges worth suffering through

A Life Matters listener shared her experience of watching her young daughter play netball and not getting as much time on the court as other kids.

“In some games, she gets a longer stint. But it tends to be when the team is already winning. When the scores are close, the on-court time is dominated by the star players,” she says.

“This is not bothering my daughter yet, but I’d like to be ready in case it does.”

Kids of different ages want different things from playing sport — for example, to be liked, do a good job, have fun or get fit.

But as a child gets older, not hitting their targets can pack a serious punch, Dr Jefferson says.

“The adolescent brain is very reactive to experiences like rejection or not getting enough field time.”

Mr Godwin works with families to try “to help kids focus a lot more on the process, as opposed to the outcome; [to understand] that winning is a very complicated variable”.

“Rather than trying to focus on something we can control, we’d rather try to focus on the process: How do we continue to get better in our practice, in our training each week? How do we reward ourselves for really high efforts on match days, as opposed to the result of winning or losing?”

Mr Godwin advises parents to “help guide the child to what it is they can control in that situation” and consider “how do we make the most of what we’ve got?”.

When both parents and their children have a clear idea about what the child is trying to get out of their sport, achievable targets can be set “that will help move them in the direction that they’re after”.

That could involve asking a child what they’d like to do with the game time they do have, for example running really hard, connecting passes or communicating well with teammates.

Don’t dismiss big feelings

When setbacks elicit emotional responses from children, a parent’s role is “to hold space for those responses”, Dr Jefferson says.

“The child’s emotional reaction to things is entirely legitimate to them in that moment of time.

“Where [children’s] response to things is highly emotive and they’re very upset, [the parent’s] job is to hold space for that.”

And usually children’s reactions, even the big ones, will pass.

“In 24 hours, they’re probably not going to feel as emotional about it as they do at the time,” he says.

“And that’s when you can have those constructive conversations around, ‘Yep, that was tough. Yes, I know yesterday you said you want to quit the team, or you’re never doing XYZ again. But maybe it would be worth going to training this coming week and having a chat with your coach about it’.”

Dr Jefferson says parents should be ready to be “quite firm” in setting boundaries.

For example, if a child is wanting to throw in the towel, a parent could say: “You know what, there’s only four more weeks of term to go with the sport. Let’s finish it off. Even if it’s not on the terms that you wanted.”

“Don’t be making big decisions in the heat of those moments. Do it at a time when everyone’s just a little bit more tempered and even in their responses.

“It’s important to come back to the notion of grit and resilience.”

Challenges, setbacks and disappointments are things through which “we suffer into knowledge”.

Don’t forget a vibe check

Some clubs are more competitive and some are more about fun and participation, but most understand that kids just want to have a great experience and develop.

As a parent, you can make life easier by scoping out a club’s culture before your child enrols, Mr Godwin says.

“Being in the right environment to begin with is really helpful,” he says.

“What I’d advise is for parents to go meet with clubs and coaches, maybe even to watch a game, before they join a club to see if the environment is right for them.”

It could alleviate later concerns about too much bench time, not enough progression — or spending too long being chased up and down a pool.


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