How Young Athletes Can Deal With Failure

Failure is very much a part of sports. There are plenty of opportunities for players to make mistakes during competition—and these mistakes can feel devastating.

Kids often beat themselves up after making mistakes, which doesn't help their confidence. In fact, it's the wrong way to handle mistakes. It hurts their confidence and enjoyment of sports.

Failure Starts Before the Play

Here's what often happens: Athletes young and old often have high expectations about their performance. They tell themselves they're going to win the game for the team, make no mistakes, hit the most runs, throw the most touchdowns, etc.

When they don't meet these expectations, they are hard on themselves, which hurts both their confidence and performance.

Without confidence, it's tough for kids to play harder when they're having a bad day. If they don't feel confident, it's much more difficult to bounce back from a bad play.

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Even the Pros Feel It

During the 2009 World Series, Chase Utley of the Phillies and Mark Teixeira of the Yankees talked about dealing with failure. Through game five of the Series, Teixeira was hitting 2 for 19.

"When you're in a rhythm during the season, you're going to fail seven out of 10 times," said Teixeira. "When you're not in a rhythm, you're going to fail a lot more."

Teixeira understood the importance of accepting failure and moving on. That's what young athletes need to do, too. Even on good days, they'll make mistakes; they can't be perfect at the plate or in the field or on the court.

Most young athletes don't think this way. They often analyze their mistakes and beat themselves up.

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Learning to Love Risks

But they need to learn how to view failure in a different light. They need to learn how to make mistakes okay in their minds.

That way, they can stay composed and play in the present. If they can do this, they'll feel more comfortable taking risks—risks that are the key to growing and learning.

We like to tell skaters that if they don't fall down, they'll never learn anything. If they fall down, it means they're pushing themselves and growing.

"The doer makes mistakes," says Bruce Kracke, a sports dad and certified trainer for the Positive Coaching Alliance. "The team that makes the most mistakes will probably win. These are kids who make things happen."

They make things happen because they take risks. They bounce back and move on after mistakes.

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Learning From Failure

Young players should view mistakes as an opportunity to figure out how to improve their performance instead of being frustrated. For example, if kids had trouble hitting fastballs in their last game, they should consider devoting their next practice to practicing them.

Kracke feels that sports parents and coaches can take a number of steps to ensure their sports kids feel like it's okay to make mistakes.

One of the Positive Coaching Alliance's rituals is to use the "flushing motion." When a child makes a mistake and looks at the coach or parent, the adult should make a flushing motion, which means: "flush away the mistake, move on."

Parents and coaches should not remove kids from games after mistakes, or punish them, says Kracke. Instead, keep them in the game, support them, and tell them it's okay.

"This tells kids they aren't going to get reamed in front of their peers or yanked from the game. They can get aggressive and try something new," he says. "The important thing is to get ready for the next play."

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About the Author

Dr. Patrick Cohn/Lisa Cohn

Award-winning parenting writer Lisa Cohn and youth sports psychology expert Dr. Patrick Cohn are co-founders of The Ultimate Sports Parent. Pick up their free e-book, "Ten Tips to Improve Confidence and Success in Young Athletes."

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