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How to help young athletes cope with defeat

The value of athletic competition for children who like to play sports is undeniable. Though not all kids will want to play sports, those who enjoy competing in organized athletics can benefit in myriad ways.

Doctors with the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness note that interest in sports should start with the child, not the parent. Such an approach can ensure kids are playing sports because they want to, and not solely because their parents want them to.

The AAP notes that when kids are playing sports because they want to, they can take the lessons learned from competition and use them throughout the rest of their lives.

For example, Dr. Steven Cuff, MD, FAAP, who co-authored the 2019 report “Organized Sports for Children, Preadolescents and Adolescents,” notes that “the camaraderie and teamwork needed on a playing field offers lasting lessons on personal responsibility, sportsmanship, goal-setting and emotional control.”

When competing, some young athletes may have a hard time handling defeat. In fact, even professional athletes routinely acknowledge how much they struggle after a loss. But there are ways parents and coaches can help young athletes cope with defeat.

Reward effort. The College of Education at Michigan State University recommends coaches and parents put an emphasis on effort and allow athletes to bring up the outcome of a particular competition on their own. Encourage maximum effort during competition and spend time after the game discussing with athletes how they performed and the effort they gave. Remind them that their best effort is all anyone can ask for, which shifts focus from a loss to the effort they gave.

Communicate privately if effort is lacking. Parents and coaches who feel their child or player did not give maximum effort can communicate those feelings privately without putting the athlete down. Emphasize that the next game is a great chance to show improvement and give maximum effort.

Encourage a healthy perspective. The COE at MSU also urges parents and coaches to encourage young athletes to keep a healthy perspective on their participation in sports. Encourage kids not to sacrifice other aspects of their life, such as academics and their social life, to improve their athletic performance. When young athletes focus too heavily on a sport, that can create an unhealthy situation that makes it that much harder to cope with defeat in a positive way.

Emphasize the individual, not the athlete. Coaches can speak with their players about their lives outside of the sport. Such conversations can show athletes that there’s more to life than just sports and that they’re more than just athletes, which can make it easier to handle defeat.

Many successful athletes insist they learn more from defeat than they do from victory. Helping young athletes cope with defeat in a healthy way can benefit them throughout their lives.

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