I was at my first state-level competition in high school. All of us athletes there had won our regionals. Every single kid was a top wrestler in the state of Minnesota, then some won, and some lost.
After losing both of my matches (and quickly I might add), I walked into the locker room to change. Right in front of me, a dad was yelling at his 10-year-old at the top of his lungs.
Ten years old, with his dad screaming, “You didn’t even f*cking try! You didn’t even f*cking try!” The kid was sobbing saying, “I tried, Dad, I tried, I tried.”
That moment was burned into my memory. And that’s only one of thousands of examples of overbearing parents I have experienced in a lifetime of amateur and professional sports.
Here is my question: how will that young man grow up?
Listen, I’m a proponent of victory. It’s what I always focus on. But statistically, there are going to be times—many, many, many more times—that you lose rather than win. Being able to handle losing goes way beyond sport into life.
How parents handle a tough sports situation models for their children how to handle tough life situations later. How will that young man treat his son? How will that young man treat his loved one later when they make a mistake in a relationship?
If you are the parent of an athlete, here are four positive ways to help your child handle defeat and gain the most from playing any sport, however far they go.
1. ASK: WHO WANTS THEM TO PLAY?
Does your kid even want to play? I’ve seen so many people lie to themselves about their child loving a sport. The truth is, they want that child in that sport because they could not do it themselves. They couldn’t play football, or weren’t good enough at basketball. Now, all of a sudden, their kid is supposed to live their dream? Yikes.
A guy I know runs a gym out here in Denver, training 150 high school kids every month. Maybe only 30 of those kids really want to be there, and that’s sad. You’ve got 200+ parents paying for their kids to be there, for the parents’ sake. Nobody is happy. These kids are not working, they’re not learning. They are failing at something they do not care about, on top of the teenage stuff we all experience. He and I have no doubt they’d rather be doing something else.
First, ask if your kid even wants to play. Was it their idea or yours? And be ok with their answer.
Maybe they don’t really know at first. If you want them to try it, commit for one year or one season (more on that later) and then let them stop once they give it their all. Help them find the activity they really want to join and can commit to.
2. TEACH THEM HOW TO FAIL AND GET BACK UP
Sending a ball into a goal is good, but sports have an even greater impact on personal and life goals. What is the bigger goal of sport in your kid’s life? In your life? Focus on that greater goal for your kid. For me as an NFL player—and for every athlete that has reached the highest level—sports benefits children way beyond those brief moments of victory.
In my opinion, the most important benefit sports builds for your child comes from teaching them how to fail. You want your kids to learn how to fail in a structured environment, and figure out to get themselves back up again. You want to teach your child how to survive that difficult moment when their good is not good enough. Teach them what to focus on, how to get through it, what to look forward to, what they can do. That is a moment that you really want to nurture if you want your kid to go far. It’s truly a great opportunity in disguise.
Another goal of sports is to teach kids how to FINISH. How to not only complete a game, but finish a season. Finish through adversity, even if your team loses every game. Finish the blowout win with respect. These goals become character traits that lead your child to success for the majority of their life.
3. TEACH THEM TO NEVER QUIT: COMMIT
My first night at Notre Dame, I called my mom and said, “I’m coming home.” I had gotten in a fight in a snack line of all places, and I was pissed off that these seniors had singled me out and picked on me. I didn’t think I’d ever get anybody’s respect, and I’d never be able to play. I didn’t even like how hot it was there. So I called my mom.
“Mom. I’m coming home. This place sucks.”
She said, “Absolutely not. You’re staying for at least a year.” And she hung up the phone.
To this day, I am grateful. I went on to become the youngest freshman lineman to start at Notre Dame, only the third ever at that time. Thank God my mom didn’t let me quit. (Thanks mom!) I learned a great lesson: problems are temporary and can be worked through.
When your kid starts a sport, teach them to commit. If your kid starts and finds out they do not like it, that’s fine. Good lesson. They will be in situations again and again when it comes to doing things we do not like. By finishing they will learn something about themselves. Teach them how to complete something they start.
The benefits will last the rest of their lives. What happens when their relationship gets a little tough and they quit when it could have worked? What happens when their job gets tough for a while? Will they quit?
Sports gives us parents a great opportunity to teach a child early on how to handle obstacles, adversities, and challenges. If you let your kid quit, you are doing them a disservice.
Also demonstrate the process of working through a problem. Ask why they want to quit. Maybe you will hear, “I want to quit because I’m not playing.”
“Well, why are you not playing?”
“Because I’m not as good as the others.”
“Well, what can you do to be good enough. What can you learn? What do you want to be better at that you can work on? How can I support you?”
Now you’re having a discussion. Now you’re bonding with your child and helping them discover their feelings in those tough moments. Now you’re building character. They won’t quit when they become overwhelmed or embarrassed. They will continue to build their own character later in life. What more could you want as a parent?
Help them identify their feelings and the process of finishing. Maybe, after one season, they won’t play again. But I bet you this: in that season, your son or daughter is going to make a basket, a free-throw, or get in the game and have a moment. They will look at you on the sidelines and you will have your fists in the air for them, all because they didn’t quit. Because you helped them work through their discouragement. What a gift. A lasting gift.
4. CELEBRATE SELF-IMPROVEMENT AND ACHIEVEMENT
Parents of a seven-year-old I know are already planning on their kid getting a college basketball scholarship. They say over and over that their kid is “better than everybody they play against.” In my opinion, they are setting their kid up for a fall. They are putting too much pressure on the kid to fulfill a nearly impossible dream.
The tough truth is that, statistically, only a tiny fraction of high school athletes make it to the pros or get full scholarships. Look at these numbers:
If you are feeding your child an unrealistic vision, you are doing them the worst disservice. You’re also missing an opportunity to talk about the value of an education. To make it in the NFL, you need to go to college for three years. Ask them, “What are you going to tell the coach you want to study? What kind of grades do you think coach would want, for you to play for them? You don’t even have to yell at them. This is another way to use sport to go beyond “winning.”
Appreciate the successes they do have, and stop trying to focus on future success. Celebrate their moments with them. What skill did they work on and finally apply on the field/court/ice? What personal goals did they set and achieve for themselves this year? Teach them the process of self-improvement and personal achievement.
Sports builds character—the kind of character that can benefit your kid for the rest of their life. It builds the ability to withstand any hardship that life may throw at them later.
Now ask yourself: beyond winning, what’s the healthy goal of sports in your life? In your child’s life? How can you help your child focus on learning who they are, committing, getting through tough moments, working towards personal goals, and more?
That’s how you help your child win for the rest of their lives, even when they lose games on the field.