How to help your child face a losing streak

Heartbroken watching your child suffer through a losing streak and not sure how best to help them? Here’s some advice from Javier Orti, director at Helping Kids.

They say nothing hurts like watching your child in pain, and it’s certainly an expression I’ve found to be true.

And as they start to get older and more independent, parents find themselves walking the balance between being their biggest supporter and letting them learn how to suffer failure – after all, failure is part of life, and we need to know how to navigate it to become healthy adults.

But if your child has been batting zeroes (literally or figuratively) for a few rounds now, how do you decide as a parent if it’s a good learning experience and they should keep pushing towards a goal, or if they should be persuaded to move into something they are better suited to?

Of course your child’s feeling come into the decision – if they want to keep at it, great, if they are desperate to bail out and it serves no higher purpose, also great. But what if you’re worried about ongoing blows to their ego, or you want them to learn to suck it up even when they want to give it away?

I know from personal experience, there have been sports I’ve wanted to give up on, and was happy Mum and Dad let me, but there are some things I wasn’t great at that as an adult, I wish I’d been pushed into persisting a little longer at. Through admittedly rose-coloured glasses.

“Losing is a painful and debilitating experience for children, yet one that is crucial for their lives. How we face losing will determine our level of resilience for the future, and they will have plenty of occasions to use it throughout life – think exams, friendship, or job interviews,” says Javier.

He says while results are important, it’s the overemphasis on results that are the likely cause of pressure, especially at an age when they're not yet mature to manage it.

The three-tier strategy to walk them through a losing streak

“Before the game (or test, or event), I suggest parents or coaches talk with the kids and set one thing they will pay special attention to in the game," Javier says. "This could be accurate passing, running faster, or paying attention to where your team members are located. Anything works, as long as it is a simple and single thing for them to focus on."

Following the game, your questions should start with “did you enjoy it?” then “did you do your best, or do you think you could have pushed yourself a bit more?” Then you can move on to, “what was the result?”

Javier explains these questions balance 70 per cent of importance towards their enjoyment and 30 per cent towards effort, while being aware the result is important too.

Javier recommends three other questions:

  • “What were the three best things you did on the game?” - even if it was a disastrous game, there are things they can feel proud of.
  • “What one thing you could have done better?”
  • “How can you do that better next time?”

These questions place focus on the effort or abilities your child displayed rather than the outcome and Javier says it’s a great way to build self-awareness and resilience.

Should you let them walk away?

While it’s a common instinct to dissuade your child from being a ‘quitter’ just because they are doing poorly (or conversely, you may be wondering if their self-esteem can keep taking a battering despite them saying they want to carry on), it can be hard to know if it’s time to cut their losses and bow out or allow and encourage them to persist through adversity.

“I advise parents to look for patterns," says Javier. "Is your child ready to go to training or their game on time? Are they rambling around the house and pretending not to care? What comments are they sharing after the game? Are they blaming everybody but them? Or on the opposite side, are they convinced they are doing everything wrong?”

“I would also ask a parent to be crystal clear on the goal behind their child doing that particular activity. What do you want them to learn? Is it about getting exercise or learning about competition or resilience, for example. Do we want them to experience winning and losing constructively?” Then look at whether these goals are being serviced or it’s a case of our own feelings clouding judgment.

Keeping the spirits up

Being upset about losing is natural and even good, but Javier says beyond this moment, it’s important to explain that losing is OK (as is winning), but the important question is: now what? Do I train harder, pay more attention, quit or ask for help?

“If your child is enjoying the sport, has a plan and resources to improve, they will not need any further assistance. They will want to do it for the sense of achievement, learning and pride,” he says.

“If they are faltering, then think further. As parents, it’s our responsibility to expose our children to the experiences we think are right for them (be that piano, learning a language or playing a sport) but the commitment will need to come from them,” he says.

A sense of proportion is also important for parents – if our children stop playing soccer or football, it's unlikely to be life-changing or damage all their personal and professional development.

Have you had to make a tough call about giving it up or persisting through failure? How did you handle it?

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