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How Should I Help My Child Handle Disappointments or Setbacks in Sports?

How should I help my child handle disappointments or setbacks in sports?

This is the fourth article in our Big Questions in Youth Sports” series. For many parents, there are pressing questions related to youth sports that they just can't find the right answers to. SportsEngine wanted to provide some insights from youth and high school coaches in different sports, from across the country, who have achieved success and earned a reputation for positively developing student-athletes in different sports.

Here are some coaches answers on how a parent or guardian can help a child deal with disappointments or setbacks in sports:

"Let them cry and be sad for a day and then tell them, 'Too bad! This is life.' You can cry, whine and get left behind or wipe the tears, play the hand you got, head down and work, and things will pass, and you will be better on the other side."

Annie Adamczak-Glavan is one of the greatest athletes in Minnesota history, emerging from the tiny community of Moose Lake. In her senior year, she was an All-State player in volleyball, basketball and softball, with the teams combining for a record of 79-0 and winning state titles in each sport. An All-American at the University of Nebraska in volleyball, she founded Club 43 in Hopkins, and she's coached at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, Edina High School and St. Louis Park High School.

"I think there should be a discussion with the parents and the player that involves some honesty – mainly from the player. If we look at a baseball player who hasn’t made his team, for example, asking him if he thought he was treated fairly during the tryouts or season is a good place to start. Asking where the player thinks he stacks up against his peers. Asking, 'Did you work hard enough to warrant a spot on the team?' Asking if they knew how to prepare and what was expected of them."

Adam Barta is a native of Lake Crystal, Minnesota, and he played baseball at Bethany Lutheran College and the College of St. Scholastica. The founder and a longtime coach with Blizzard Baseball Academy, Adam has helped develop many young athletes who have gone on to play in college and in the pros. An Associate Scout with the Chicago White Sox, Adam was inducted into the St. Scholastica baseball Hall of Fame in 2012.

"There will be struggle in team sports. It is all part of the process. As parents, a few things to consider. First, accept the struggle of team sports. It is where growth and lifelong learning occurs. Second, remember that the struggle is not your experience. It is your child’s. And third, help guide your child through the struggle. Do not solve their problems. Support them and be a positive place for them to talk and for you to listen."

Greg Berge has been the Boys Varsity Basketball Coach at Lake City High School in Minnesota for 17 years. He's led his program to 10 conference titles and two State Tournament appearances, including a third-place finish in 2019. He's also coached an assortment of other sports for boys and girls as young as 6 years old.

"We kind of have a very important role as a parent. We have a very important role as a coach. What's the mindset we're setting our kids up for? John O'Sullivan talks about this in his book, "Changing The Game," about two different paths we could take. We could take the path of making our kid feel better. So if he failed, 'I'm just gonna make him feel better. I'm gonna make excuses. I'm gonna blame. I'm gonna say, 'It wasn't your fault that this happened.' Or you can take a little step further and have some balance. Obviously, as a parent or as a coach, you want to make your kid feel better. But the next step is, 'How can you learn from this mistake? How can you learn from this failure? How can you take this lesson and become a better person because of it?' Now if we're doing that, that path is making your son or daughter a better person."

Matt Booth is the Director of Strength & Conditioning, Assistant track coach, and Dean of Athletics at Canterbury School in Ft. Myers, FL. A high jumper at Wheaton College, he's worked with athletes who have gone on to play in the NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS. He was a 2022 Regional Double-Goal Coach® winner by Positive Coaching Alliance.

"Tell the child stories. Tell stories of when we have failed as parents and stories of top athletes who used their setbacks for growth and improvement."

Ruth Brennan Morrey played Division I soccer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she was a co-captain in 1998. In 1999, relatively new to running marathons, Ruth qualified for the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials with a time of 2 hours, 48 minutes and 20 seconds. A professional triathlete, she is a Girls Head Coach with Minnesota Rush in Rochester, Minnesota, and possesses a USSF D license and completed the T1 and T2 courses for TOVO.

"Be an overwhelmingly positive influence. Never let them see you upset about their setbacks, and never let them see you be negative towards their coach, team, or situation. If you are negative, they will copy your behavior. You should be the rock they can lean on and the one that makes them believe they can overcome any challenge they face."

Jacob Brown started playing competitive soccer in his hometown of Cullman, Alabama, when he was 11 years old. He helped Cullman High to two Final Four appearances in the state tournament, and played at Wallace State. He's led the Cullman High Girls Varsity team to four section titles, and he led the West Point High Boys Varsity team to its most successful season ever. He is the Director of Coaching for Cullman United Soccer Club, leading three club teams to state titles.

"Encourage growth mindset. Failure and setbacks are an opportunity to learn and get better."

Jeff Buck played Division I soccer at Florida International University, and he's coached young players from age 5 to 19 years old in Minnesota and Florida. He holds a USSF C License.

"Keep them focused on the journey ahead. Setbacks are part of every journey and endeavor. I ask them to evaluate what they might have done differently for a better outcome, or to pivot when moments are clearly untenable. It’s great to use the path of great role models to give perspective on the difficulties and disappointments."

Sean Canty was an all-league high school forward who played club soccer throughout his childhood. He has been coaching in the greater Reno and Tahoe area since 1993, mainly with soccer. Currently a coach with Sierra Surf SC and MVLA Reno, Canty holds a USSF C license, and a USYS National Youth license. He's also completed the T1 and T2 courses for TOVO, a program based in Spain.

"First of all, the parents need to be there and support them. They don't need to criticize coaches. 'Your coach isn't doing this, your coach isn't do doing that. A lot of the major sports, everybody's an expert and everybody contradicts a coach. So they'll be telling them one thing, and the coach is telling them something else. And that's just not a productive way to go about it."

To say Steve DeAugustino comes from a wrestling family would be an understatement: He's the fourth member of his family to be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, thanks to a standout collegiate career at the University of Maryland and 27 years as the Wrestling Coach at Flagler Coast High School, where he's led the program to three state titles. A three-time selection for Coach of the Year in Florida, he's coached 11 individual state champions, and is respected for his composure and sportsmanship. Now the Athletic Director at his school, Stephen's son Michael is a two-time All-American at Northwestern University.

"Obviously, the answer is, life is full of setbacks. However, this is about becoming better people, learning how to handle losses and setbacks."

John "Speedy" Faith played baseball at Oklahoma Christian University, and he was inducted into the New Mexico High School Coaches Hall of Honor in July 2022. The longtime Head Football Coach at Lovington High School, Faith coached Chicago Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher, among other talented student-athletes, and he led the school to four state championships.

"Help them to fall in love with the process, and not just the final product. Cultivate a love for competition, and in striving to improve 1% each day!"

Kurt Hines will head into his 26th season coaching high school football in the fall, and he's currently the Head Football Coach at Coronado High in California. He also has extensive experience coaching high school football in New Hampshire, winning a Coach of the Year award in 2012 when he was Head Coach of Bedford High.

"Use them as a learning experience. Whether it’s not making a starting 11, losing the championship, or injury, there is an opportunity to learn and grow. Too many times when things get tough, we back down or go down a different path. Sport is a great way to teach and build resilience. When something happens like that, take a breath, write down your thoughts/ frustrations and then leave it for a day/ week/ month and then come back to it and see if those thoughts are still the same or if they’ve changed. Sometimes time is all we need to get back on track. Sometimes it’s a different approach or mentality to come back stronger."

Kyle Kelly has coached girls soccer both at the high school and club level in and around the Lake Tahoe region in California and Nevada. He led Truckee High School to three Nevada state high school titles, and he was named Nevada 3A Girls High School Coach of the Year in 2015. Coaching and serving in leadership roles at Truckee River United FC, he's also coached at Sierra Nevada College and Truckee Meadows Community College.

"By help, I assume you mean to work through it mentally — this is part of life and it is easy to quit when this happens. But finding a way to work through the tough times is a life lesson. Parents need to understand that failure and disappointment will help the athlete learn to fight through tough times in life. We now have a society that wants things for free and does not understand the power of a work ethic and how to get up when you have been knocked down. Sports helps teach this."

Mike Kirschner had successful runs at two Indianapolis area high schools, including leading Ben Davis High to two state titles. But in 2021, he returned to his alma mater, Warren Central High. Kirschner has coached multiple sports over three decades, starting as a youth football coach in 1984, and he was honored to coach at the Army All-American Bowl in 2015 and 2017. He was also once a MaxPreps finalist for National Coach of the Year.

"That's another opportunity to teach life lessons. The biggest thing we can do, as parents, is share your movie, your personal story, with your kids. How did you handle a disappointment in your life? Let your kids know that this happens. There are things you're going to be disappointed about. What was your experience when you were playing in middle school or high school, when you thought you were the better player? How did you handle that?"

Larry McKenzie has led two North Minneapolis public high schools to a combined six state titles, including a record four straight. A member of Minnesota's Positive Coaches Alliance, Coach McKenzie is the first Black coach inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2014. In 2019, he was recognized by the NCAA with the prestigious “Living Legend Award” and a "Guardian of the Game" by the National Basketball Coaches Association.

"I think it's good for us to allow our kids to have disappointment. Not that we want them to be disappointed, they need to learn how to pick themselves up, and I think sometimes we try to shield them from getting upset or having disappointments. But it's okay for them to be disappointed and learn from that. And then I just tell them, 'If you've given your best effort, you prepared yourself, you're not always going to get the win, every single time.'"

A native of Miami, JaJa Richards marvels at all the places basketball has taken him. He played professionally for 14 years in countries such as Honduras, Israel, Beijing, Cuba, Brazil, France, Mexico, Ukraine and Turkey. After his playing career ended, he returned to Florida, where he created the All Stars Are Bright Corporation, a youth basketball program that focuses on encouraging student-athletes to achieve academic excellence and athletic success. He received the 2023 Double-Goal Coach® National Award from Positive Coaching Alliance.

"This is all part of learning those life skills. We don’t always get what we want, and we need the coping mechanisms to be able to deal with, not only disappointments but success. I found talking children through those feelings and discussing how their next choice will affect future outcomes is most helpful." 

As a youth, Steve Rollins played soccer at the famed Ajax Youth Academy in the Netherlands for two seasons. A Division I fencing athlete at St. John's, Rollins returned to Ajax as an assistant coach for four seasons, earning the prestigious UEFA B license. He's currently providing supplemental training for about 50 players in and around Princeton, New Jersey, and serves as a scout for Sports Recruit USA.

"This'll pass, and there's gonna be setbacks in life, whether it's your job or whether it's your health. As they get older, you talk to the child, and make sure they're okay with it and know it's part of growing up, it's part of life," says Smolyn. "Hey, they cut Michael Jordan from the freshman basketball team in high school! He didn't get discouraged. You talk them through it, and, hopefully, they grow from it."

In March 2021, Don Smolyn retired after 45 years as the Head Football Coach at Lenape Valley Regional High School in New Jersey. The active leader in his state with 348 victories at the time of his retirement, Smolyn led his program to seven state titles and 12 league championships, racking up many notable awards along the way, including the 2021 American Football Coaches Association Power of Influence Award, induction into the NJSIAA Sports Hall of Fame and the 2003 National High School Football Coach of the Year.

"Understand that disappointments and adversity are going to happen in sport and in life. You can choose how you react to them — sit in self-pity or reflect on why you had disappointment, make adjustments, and move forward."

Melissa Volk is in her 10th season as the Head Girls Hockey Coach at Andover High School in Minnesota. She has led the program to seven state tournament appearances, including state titles in 2020 and 2022. Volk played four seasons of hockey at St. Olaf College and was a captain and All-Conference player at Irondale High School in New Brighton, Minnesota.


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