It's NOT Just a Game

Teaching Resilience Through Sports: Lessons from a Winless Day

As much as many parents and coaches harp on sports being "just a game", our enjoyment from it comes from the fact that it is not in fact “just a game”. It’s an arena where we enact rituals with deep psychological meaning, and deal with all sorts of inner conflicts. 

-Richard Weissbourd

So, a few weeks back, my wife and I were at a tennis competition watching our seven-year-old daughter. Now, watching your kid learn a sport can be a painful experience for most parents. But for us, it was doubly painful because Alena is not exactly what you'd call a good tennis player. After losing her first match 10-9 against the only opponent she had a chance against, I knew she wasn't going to win a single match that day.

Between matches, Alena would come over to us for some water, a snack, and a chat. After losing her second match 10-3, she said something that broke my heart: "Dad, I'm not winning any matches." She was so deflated and upset about losing. I was torn about how to respond.

On the one hand, I wanted to tell her to forget about it and just have fun. But deep down, I knew it wasn't just a game to her. Even though she only practiced once a week, I could tell that she really wanted to do well. And let's face it, a winless day wasn't exactly going to be a joyful experience for her.

On the other hand, I wanted to give her some pointers and shout some advice from the sidelines. But I realized that it wouldn't be helpful or healthy for her.

So I asked her, "Do you want me to help you?" She quickly said no, so I just reminded her, "All you can do is keep trying your hardest."

Later on, she asked her mom for help and worked on a few things. She did improve, but unfortunately, she still didn't manage to get a win. On the walk back home, I could tell she was feeling down. I wanted to use the phrase that my friend and sports parent influencer Asia Mape encourages parents to say after games: "I love to watch you play." But to be honest, it just didn't feel like the right thing to say. Instead, we had this short exchange:

Me: How are you feeling?

Alena: Sad.

Me: Sad?

Alena: I'm not any good.

Me: Yet. You aren't very good yet. But you did improve throughout the day. So what do you want to do?

Alena: I dunno.

Me: If you don't want to play tennis anymore, you don't have to keep playing.

Alena: No, I like it. I want to keep playing. Can I start going to practice more during the week?

I'm sure some folks out there will read this story and argue that they shouldn't have been keeping score at such a young age. Others might say that I could have been more positive and encouraging in my approach.

I'm sure I could have done something better in the moment. But what I saw in my daughter's defeat was an opportunity for her to work through her feelings of disappointment and take ownership of her own athletic experience, even when things didn't go her way.

What mattered most to me was that she showed good sportsmanship by shaking every kid's hand after the loss, didn't throw her racket in frustration, and kept pushing through the struggle without giving up.

To me, the most important thing was seeing growth in her as a person, not just as a tennis player. It was clear that the game already meant something to her, even if she was able to forget about it later in the day.

All in all, I'm proud of her for persevering through a tough day on the court. It wasn't easy, but she showed grit and determination, and that's what really counts in the end.

You know, it's moments like these where we can really shape our kids' mentalities and their ability to handle adversity. NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo showed us all how it's done after he got knocked out of the playoffs a few weeks back. But as coaches and parents, we don't just throw our kids into the deep end of competition and hope they can swim. We need to help them process the pain of loss in a healthy way, and guide them through it.

I'll leave you with this quote from Richard Weissbourd's book, The Parents We Mean to Be: "When parents treat sports as simply a game, they can rob children of sports’ moral power. Conversely, when parents take sports as a true measure of their child's worth or capacities, or their worth, or their town's worth, they are not creating for children the opportunity to master conflict or develop understanding. It's important that we don't turn sports into a false proving ground, and instead focus on the growth and development of our kids as individuals, both on and off the field.”

- J.P. Nerbun

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