Innoculate Against Sport Failure – Sports Leadership for Success
As we finish up the winter sport season and thousands of kids nationwide prepare for sectional, district, and state interscholastic competition, it is important for parents and coaches to help prepare kids for the potential “off day” they may experience as their mental toughness decreases while their level of anxiety increases (Mind of Steel).
While people don’t usually like to think about “what ifs” when it comes to sports (some even feel its taboo to do so), it is actually a worthwhile endeavor, ironically. In other words, student athletes may actually benefit by having a conversation with you (the parent or coach) about the reality of facing elite-level competition, and how it is possible to fail along this pursuit. This is not a pessimistic message, but instead a responsible one.
When kids are not prepared for failure, it can come as quite a shock and result in depression, anxiety, anger, and even unhealthy coping responses including drug and alcohol usage. It is for this reason that it is imperative to talk to kids about the realities of sport competition, and how on any given day it is possible to lose or perform below expectations. In some sports, like swimming and gymnastics, a student athlete may actually score the best time of the season and still end up at the back of the pack because of the surrounding talent he or she is competing against at the state level. If you have a student athlete in your family, or you are a youth sport coach, try using the following role modeling strategies to help “pad the fall” for kids who may not perform as well as they had hoped as they move up the competition ladder:
- It is important that you help kids see their own personal growth and improved success over the course of a season. What this means is that while they may not win at the state level of competition, they may still improve on scores and times and even hit their personal best — this should not go unnoticed!
- Frame losing in its proper context. Losing is a part of life and should not be viewed as anything more than an opportunity to learn and grow from in the future. Every athlete will lose, and it’s not the loss that does anything but instead what the athlete does with the loss.
- Maintain open communication. Encourage kids to talk about the nerves they are experiencing and try to normalize their experience. In fact, you may even want to talk about your own previous experiences with nerves and how you overcame personal anxiety
- Inoculate by using imagery. Help kids “see” in their minds what their competition with look like, what the venue will be like, and even what it might feel like to have to work back from adversity (assuming they have a tough early match and lose). The better kids prepare for a sporting event, the less anxious they will be when the day finally arrives.
- Teach positive coping skills. You can expect that kids will have trouble coping with loss and adversity, so be sure to teach them positive sports leadership skills to cope with their stressors. Just about anything can be using as a coping mechanism so long as it safe and healthy.