I am a college coach in a full contact sport where many practice sessions have the potential for failure to outweigh success. For me, this is a positive because if there is one aspect that many high school and college athletes have in common today it is the fear of being put in situations where they are not the best, do not master a new skill on the first try or have to fail in front of their peers.
If you are waiting for this to turn into another “everyone gets a trophy blog”, you will be waiting a while because I am headed in a different direction.
I have developed a theory on the slow battle coaches are fighting against the pre-programmed mindset where every year it seems like the athletes are increasingly more anxious not about performing but, performing perfectly. I hear coaches complain that their athletes do not know how to problem solve or that they don’t know how to “just play”.
I see more athlete fits of anxiety over disappointment from failure than any other challenge and it is increasingly leading young adults to the quick conclusion that they must be depressed or perhaps are suffering from something medically related.
Studies do show that many of our athletes are indeed falling prey to more mental health challenges but in the midst of the distinction between true mental health struggles and a lack of intestinal fortitude, we are also failing to acknowledge the exposure to disappointment that most of them have been shielded from.
Bear in mind, I’m not talking about major, painful, life disappointment, I’m talking about the everyday small disappointments that are being intentionally avoided in order to provide a 100% satisfaction guarantee in family households.
I am the youngest of three children. As a child, I witnessed my fair share of the ritual when older siblings were permitted to partake in more activities. I consider it now, a right of passage and am thankful to my parents for not including me in everything by default. My brother and sister would get invitations from a classmate or friend to their birthday parties. I would see that invitation stuck firmly to the refrigerator door weeks in advance. I would accompany my mom and siblings to the store to pick out a gift for the party and all along, knew full well that I was not invited.
Despite this, no matter how much I was prepared me for it, it was always tough to be left out. Somewhere at the 15 minute mark after one of my siblings was dropped off at the party, I got over it. Anything beyond a few heavy sighs or a jealous attitude got the "you aren't even friends with them, you weren't invited and you aren't old enough so stop pouting," from my mother. This squashed any determination I had to make any adult feel guilty pretty quickly.
These scenarios are small but valuable and I want to highlight them because avoiding them is crippling our ability to develop resilience in our kids and athletes.
I’ve heard firsthand, parents who admit to canceling a party for their own kid because it was "too stressful to invite the entire neighborhood". When I asked why this was a necessary factor in their decision to not celebrate their child’s birthday, they responded, “Well, it’s basically a rule that you have to invite everyone on the block so none of the kids get left out.”
Of course, this was also because it was more expensive, time consuming and stressful but this is precisely the price we choose to pay for not wanting to disappoint kids. Adults fall victim to this too and this was quite eye-opening for me to learn that people have actually scratched celebrating a milestone for their own kid based on the fear of disappointing other children or potentially tarnishing their neighborhood reputation.
Today, we still have birthday parties, gatherings, school functions, organized sports and weddings but the main objective feels as though it has moved from celebrating to hosting an event that does not disappoint anyone.
Let's be clear, I am all about inclusion and do not advocate for anyone to be intentionally marginalized or excluded but while everyone is busy branding exclusion as a negative, these are also miniature opportunities we are throwing away to teach our kids to develop a healthy relationship with disappointment.
This should be a given and if you really think about it, in the earlier stages of life this is much more beneficial because the short term repercussions are as tame as a few tears and no cake.
When we turn these small instances into dreaded scenarios, we are doing too much work to avoid outcomes that are absolutely necessary to allow our children to win out over their emotions associated with disappointment.
Recently, a friend of mine had purchased three tickets to go to a water park with her two children 12 and 13. At the last minute, one child was unable to go. She then called upon another friend of mine and asked if her 13 year old daughter would like to accept the ticket in place of her own child.
My friend’s daughter was ecstatic with the invite but her mother quickly turned down the water park ticket because it was "unfair" to the other two other much younger siblings who were not invited.
Ok, stop right there. For anyone who has had to deal with the crying household from the kids who did not get to participate in something, I get it, yet I don’t. Explaining to a child that they aren’t being included because they were not invited is not the end of the world. Turning down valuable opportunities simply to avoid a 5-10 minute bout with normal, naturally occurring and harmless disappointment, is where we are going wrong. Here is where the sports part comes in to play because there is a serious lack of conditioning to be able to face, cope and deal with small bouts of disappointment. As adults this will undoubtedly morph into insurmountable episodes of being totally happy one minute and completely shattered the next.
These cycles as young children translate to anxious behavior in adults and it is spilling over into sports. Kids are now involved with 24/7 activities from multiple sports, instrument lessons, gifted programs, scouts and so much more. Their schedules are literally packed full of pockets of moms, dads, coaches and volunteers who are armed and ready to provide every kid with every answer. Organized neighborhood sports play has died and been replaced with full blown youth league drafts with only the best uniforms and accessories.
What I think about is the amount of lessons I learned from disappointment in sports where most came from back yard pick-up games. When you played down a player because the teams were uneven you just rolled with it. When someone cheated you handled it by calling them out or simply issuing impromptu penalties. No matter what the conflict was, you figured it out and disappointment was part of the game because someone always lost and someone always won before the street lights went out.
Today, too many coaches or parents make kids sit out or run because they make physical or mental errors yet they rescue and pity them for throwing their helmet or over-console on small failure.
My first sportsmanship lesson came from when I threw my glove in the back yard after I missed a grounder. My father couldn’t have cared less about my mistake but told me to go sit down if I was going to behave poorly. Disappointment was always permitted but overly emotional tantrums after, were completely unwelcome.
I was an enthusiastic multi-sport athlete but it wasn’t because I was involved in 100 different pay-to-play activities without time to breathe, but because I was afforded the opportunity to play catch with my father in the back yard and learned pretty quickly that stomping off after you lose or don’t get the outcome you want will earn you a trip to your room.
We learn some of the the most important lessons in sports from being disappointed. We are absolutely more structured than 20 years ago and that is okay, but this does not mean for the sake of structure that we should intentionally dodge the most crucial lessons that come with handling disappointment.
If you love your children/athletes, you will help to create opportunities and challenges where the outcome is not a guarantee of success.
Later on in life, due to those few birthday party rejection/disappointment warm-ups, this may assist them in coping with rejection for a job, being cut from a team, or stood up by a date. The phone calls you receive after these normal life disappointments are far less likely to be a devastating cry for help or assistance to cope than a simple mention that is accompanied by them moving on with their day.
Resilience is not developed overnight but habits of denying our young people minor opportunities to be disappointed also develop over time and before you know it, they are here to stay and incredibly difficult to reverse. Say yes to some measure of disappointment for your kids and your athletes because they will thank you for it later.