Helping Your Child Through Tough Losses

Written by Alison Johnson

The Monday after every game, win or lose, Christopher Newport University’s football team gathers at 7 a.m. to watch film. Coaches and players discuss what they did well and what they did poorly. By 7:50, head coach Art Link has declared that game officially over.

“We put it away,” Link says. “We move on to the next one. We give it a 24-hour rule. It has to be like a ritual.” Sports parents, take note: psychologists say that focus on growth – not just results – is the best way to help young athletes rebound af ter painful losses.

“The message should be that the ‘perfect’ athlete is not the one who never makes a mistake,” says Carly Anderson, co-owner of Premier Sport Psychology, a Minnesota-based business that contracts with youth, college and professional athletes. “The ‘perfect’ athlete figures out how to deal with setbacks and embraces failure as part of reality. That grit is what allows them to adapt for the next competition.”

A forward mindset also helps keep sports fun, adds Chris Owings, a professional baseball player with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “Go over positive parts of the game first and then talk about some things that we can work on at practice and for the next game,” Owings says. “Absolutely no need to drill a kid after a bad game; it can push the kid away from sports.”


Embrace silence.

Many kids don’t want to hear anything after a tough loss; attempted pep talks can make them feel worse. Express empathy by giving them time and space. Let them initiate a conversation when they’re ready.

Favor open-ended questions.

Don’t assume how kids are feeling. Ask for their opinions instead: on the best and worst parts of a performance, how their emotions changed during a game, what they learned and what they might do differently in the future. Listen more than you talk.

Look beyond the result.

Fixating on wins and losses doesn’t promote a flexible mental outlook, which research suggests will create better-adjusted athletes (and people), says Adela Roxas, a clinical and sport psychologist in Norfolk. “ The rigid mindset – that losing is entirely bad – would mean that no positives could be identified in losses, and nothing instructive could be derived,” she says.

Remember why you signed your kids up for sports.

Likely, you wanted to promote character, friendships and fitness, not rack up championships. “I love watching you play,” is always a simple yet powerful reflection of that.

Share your own experiences.

Open up about your brutal losses and embarrassing errors and mistakes. “Empathize with them and model how to bounce back,” Anderson advises.


Tell them, “it’s just a game” or “it’s just for fun.

” You mean well by trying to put sports in perspective, but a game often is very important to an athlete, and winning is more fun than losing. Comments that feel dismissive can quickly shut down communication. “I hate, ‘it’s OK, there’s always another game,’” says Gracie Sears, a 16-year-old cheerleader and lacrosse player from York County. “Every game counts. Pretending that the loss didn’t happen doesn’t erase it. It makes it seem like the game didn’t matter.”

Say only, “I’m sorry you lost.”

Rather than sounding disappointed, acknowledge effort, hard work, teamwork and sportsmanship – and note that athletes sometimes have to lose to prove they have those qualities. “I tell them to remember the feeling (of losing),” says David Scarborough, a father of three and longtime youth baseball coach in York County. “Learn from it, work harder and try not to feel it again.”

Analyze the game, or criticize specifics of their performance.

That’s the coach’s job. If kids want to discuss a particular play or call, they can bring it up.

Project your emotions on them.

Sometimes, parents obsess over losses more than kids. Don’t dwell, especially if your child doesn’t seem to be.

Fear unhappiness.

Kids develop confidence and resiliency by experiencing highs and lows, which can transfer from sports to everyday life. “We should expect to feel good sometimes, feel bad sometimes, win sometimes, lose sometimes and expect the unexpected,” Roxas says. “Through it all, we can be well and do well over the long haul.”

About the author

Alison Johnson

Alison Johnson is a freelance writer who specializes in feature stories on health, nutrition and fitness, as well as biographical profiles. A former full-time newspaper reporter, she has worked for two Virginia dailies and the Associated Press in Richmond. She lives in Yorktown, Va., with her husband and two sons.