Encore: My Kids Lose it When They Make Sports Mistakes. How Can I Help?
Sports is not just about the final score. It’s an opportunity for kids to grow, to learn how to improve their skills, and to be a good teammate. But athletics today can be incredibly competitive, aggressive, and emotionally intense. Dr. Lisa offers strategies for when kids lose their cool when things don’t go their way and explains how to help kids manage their reactions when they make mistakes. Reena asks about how far you should push a kid who wants to quit a sport they’re good at and if we should encourage kids to stick with sports that don’t come naturally.
November 21, 2023 | 31 min
Transcript | Encore: My Kids Lose it When They Make Sports Mistakes. How Can I Help?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 145: Encore: My Kids Lose It When They Make Sports Mistakes. How Can I Help?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: I remember when my son was like in preschool, coming down and seeing him watch a YouTube video of Tom Brady when he was in high school. Tom Brady in high school is not Tom Brady today.
REENA: I think people forget.
LISA: Actually, I was at Michigan when Tom Brady was playing for Michigan, I was a grad student, and he was like, he was not our star.
REENA: Isn’t that hard to believe? But I love that. That’s what I love about people who rise to great levels like he did. He really wasn’t born that way.
LISA: No, and even in college. I mean playing Michigan football, he was clearly no slouch, but he was not the athlete he’s turned out to be.
REENA: It just goes to show all the effort that goes into it. Sports season has begun as school season has and it’s full on, and we got this letter from a parent. It says: ‘Dear Dr. Lisa and Reena, my boys are eight and 11 and are very into competitive sports. They play on several different travel teams and I notice that they have trouble managing their emotions at an age where sports should be more about having fun than being perfect. If they miss a goal in soccer or strike out in baseball, throw a bad pitch or miss a layup in basketball, they are tearing up, crying, throwing a helmet or stomping their feet. Then they have trouble moving forward for the rest of the game. I’d love some advice on what the right thing is to say to help them manage their emotions. Especially before they get older and their emotions become bigger. How do I teach it’s okay not to be the best? Any advice would be helpful. Thank you.’ Ah, where does the parent even start? How do you lay down the foundation to make them realize it’s not about the end result, you want them to have fun. It gets so competitive so early on. They’re only eight and 11.
LISA: Well, that’s what I hear. When I listen to this I’m like, oh, man, where do these kids get the idea, and I’m sure they came by it honestly, they always do, but get the idea that at this level of playing they’re not supposed to be making mistakes. That’s the premise that needs to be disrupted here because at eight and 11, you are playing a game to start to figure out how to get better at that game. There’s no pro eight or 11-year-old who should be making very few mistakes, and of course even pros make mistakes. But at that level, something has given them the impression that they are there to get it right as opposed to they are there to learn how to play this game while hopefully having a lot of fun playing it.
REENA: So, you say that the reason they’re putting the pressure on you think is because they feel like they’ve got to nail it every time and be perfect?
LISA: Somehow they seem to think this, right? Because they’re getting so hair-trigger upset when they make what is a completely, I mean missing a layup at 11, that’s sort of to be expected. So, the first pass I would have a parent take at this is to have a pretty serious conversation about why kids are playing sports at this age level. That they are playing sports because they developing skills involved in the sports and the way you develop the skills is you practice those skills and you practicing the skills means that sometimes you’re going to get it and sometimes you’re going to not, but to do everything they can to reframe sports at this level in terms of, yeah, you’re supposed to be working on getting good. You’re not supposed to be good yet, that’s not really the expectation. And maybe try to figure out where that idea came from, right? That they’re supposed to be so good because they’re really not.
REENA: But it’s like academics in high school, like I just hate the pressure of having to get into the right top college and it’s the same in sports. It’s like if your kid didn’t start when they were three, good luck.
LISA: Well, this is really the hard thing, and when I listen to this letter I think, oh man, I think there’s a whole backstory here about the industrial complex behind kids’ sports and this idea that we’re trying to cultivate professional athletes even from the earliest days and you do that by getting kids in early and often and driving them along a lot of places to play a lot of games. But so I think, hopefully, the parent can disabuse the boys a little bit of this idea that at eight and 11 they should somehow be very talented athletes, like that is not what should be happening or certainly not expectable, so that would be the first pass. The second pass is to actually put the boys a little bit back in the driver’s seat and say to them, if it’s bothering you that you’re missing layups or if it’s bothering you that you’ve got a bad throw, practicing will help you get better, and if you want to practice more at that, we can work with you on making that happen.
REENA: So, getting into their heads that it’s not like you’re naturally born, you’ve got to work at it.
LISA: Absolutely, and there’s a concept that we’ve touched on at various points in the podcast but that’s actually really worth unpacking here and it’s this idea of a growth mindset and it comes from the psychologist Carol Dweck, who career-long at Stanford, incredible work. She wrote a book called “Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success” and what she gets at in that book is there’s basically two kinds of people. People who think your skills are what you’re born with and if you’ve got great skills upon birth, lucky you, we call that a fixed mindset, and then people with a growth mindset who feel like the skills they’ve got are a starting point and that with effort they can improve their skills. What we want is we want growth mindset athletes and we want growth mindset students. I’m going to throw a little asterisk on this, Reena, before we go another step further. People have fairly criticized growth mindset when it is extended beyond its original intent. So sometimes people have said like, oh, if just those kids would work harder, they would really succeed and they’re talking about kids who have major structural interferences like racism or poverty. So some people have wondered a bit about like should we be talking growth mindset, and what I would say is yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, don’t apply growth mindset to the solution to every problem, especially systemic racism, like that’s not the solution to that. But for situations like this where there is a kid who’s feeling frustrated about a skillset that is not where they want it to be, growth mindset is a great response, which is to say if you want to get better, you’re going to get better by practicing. And there’s even a line in Carol Dweck’s book, which is hard to read, but pretty important to read where she’s writing about a kid, a girl, who’s a gymnast who’s upset with her performance and the dad says to her, the girls who are beating you, they’re practicing more than you are.
REENA: That must’ve been hard to hear though.
LISA: Right? It’s pretty blunt, but it’s also kind of beautiful because he’s basically saying, you’re not helpless. If you want to practice more, you can get better. And just kind of being like, that’s how the world works, cookie, I’m just going to be honest with you about it. So, that’s another place for a parent to go if a kid’s feeling really frustrated that they’re not getting it right as much as they want to. Well, you can work harder and you’ll get it right more often.
REENA: Wow, that’s interesting. Growth mindset. We’ll put that in show notes for people to pick that up if they’re interested. So, to this point of disappointment, how do you help kids move past it?
LISA: Well, so this is interesting because the other thing that comes up in this letter is that then they get stuck, that they are making a mistake, which of course they’re going to do because they are eight and 11-year-old athletes, and then they kind of fall apart and then they are not able to perform all that well, which of course affects the whole team, and that’s an issue. And so another pass at this, and what I would say is no way in a million years take all three of these passes in a single conversation, much less in a single week, but there’s just a lot of ways to walk up to this, and parents will know their kid and the moments they have available and what their kid may be able to bear and tolerate. But another swing at this is to say, buddy, of course you’re going to make mistakes and here’s the other thing, your team’s counting on you to rally when you do, not if you do, when you do because you’re a part of a team. So, if you can’t keep your head in the game when something’s gone wrong you’re not just taking yourself out you’re also compromising the guys around you. So, you want to bear that in mind. And we want to be really gentle about that, but it’s okay when kids are on a team to remind them that their obligation is not just to themselves but to actually keep their head in the game so they can be there for their teammates.
REENA: Being there for their teammates. What are other things in sports that you think parents don’t think about that can be helpful in a child’s development? We always think about the scoreboard, winning and losing, or being a nice teammate, but what are the other things that can make a difference in helping your kids understand that this is important too with sports?
LISA: Well, one thing actually is the fun piece, that sports are for fun. I’m willing to double down on that idea. Sports are for fun, and yes there are kids who can get college scholarships that have major financial impact on themselves and their families, that is important, but one thing I’ve learned from the coaches I know is that if a kid stops having fun at a sport they usually stop improving at a sport.
REENA: I hadn’t thought about that.
LISA: Yeah, so in terms of how we want to size this up and what we want on the kid and the parent’s radar, is, it should be fun for the kid. If a kid is no longer having fun in a particular sport, it might be worth, playing out the season and then switching sports, but really talking about whether they’re having fun, under what conditions they’re having fun, not just because sports should be fun, but also if the kid wants to grow and develop as an athlete in that sport, they’re going to need to be having fun.
REENA: So, you think parents should ask that question, even if you think you know the answer, are you having fun, are you enjoying it?
LISA: Yeah. Oh, I think it should be right front and center, and it’s interesting, Reena, we sometimes jump so far ahead to solutions that we’re not asking our kids enough questions, like are you having fun? Are you liking this? When are you liking this? Do you want to go? Do you want to do this? Because I think even if the kid’s like, yeah, yeah, yeah, and it was all right there and you don’t feel like you learned anything new, what’s happened in that interaction is you’re making the kid ask that question of themselves and commit in a fresh way because you’ve asked the question. And there’s got to be value in a kid saying, actually I do like this and it is fun, even on the days when I don’t like how I played. That gives you a place to start from again in terms of them better tolerating not always playing as well as everybody else around them or playing as well as they had the idea they could.
REENA: I remember Michelle Obama saying every semester she would have her kids do something that they weren’t good at, to just prove that you’ve got to work hard and sometimes push through things that you don’t like. I felt that way about sports. I hated sports. I was not a good athlete at all, but I was grateful that I did do sports. Where’s the balance between I’m not having fun, I don’t really want to do it, and then pushing your kids to try to do something and expand their horizons?
LISA: Oh, man. That’s such a good question because there’s value in the bad at something and sticking with it.
REENA: Tell me more about that.
LISA: Well, what I’m thinking about is sometimes you come across these kids who are very, very skillful in a lot of ways. They’re good at school, they’ve got strong social skills, they’re fun and funny, school comes to them easily, and then their family says, okay, you need to play a sport and the kid turns out to not be all that naturally athletic, like it just doesn’t come to them like other things come to them, and I’ve seen those kids be like, I don’t want to do it because it doesn’t feel good. Maybe this was you, Reena, you’re like, everything else I’m pretty capable at and this feels lousy and why would I do this? And one thing if that’s your kid, one thing that you can say is, you know, kiddo? You got pretty lucky. The hand you got dealt, there’s a lot that comes easy to you that doesn’t necessarily come easy to everybody else. School does not come easy to everybody, social skills don’t come easy to everybody, and say, I’m going to ask you to stick with this because you need to know what it feels like to not have something come easy. Both because I want you to develop the capacity to work through it anyway but also because I want you to develop empathy for kids where the stuff that comes easy to you doesn’t come easy to them. That’s a conversation I want you to have with a kid eight, nine, 10 years old.
REENA: That is really interesting. So much of it is in parenting, you just do it because your parents did it, you did it, you need to do it too, but I love how you make us realize you’ve got to have these conversations with kids and do a little explaining before you throw them into a situation.
LISA: Yeah, or I’ve known kids who, when they didn’t get on a team they wanted, maybe they were put on the B team, they want to quit. Like I’ll play if I’m on the A team, but if I’m on the B team I don’t want to play, and I think that’s a moment in parenting where you’re like, actually, I’m going to require you to stay on the B team because you need to be okay with not always being the best, and that’s something that comes up in this letter. How do I help them not be the best? And part of how we help kids tolerate that they are either not always going to be the best or never going to be the best, we have to be okay with that, is that we let them know that we are okay with that. I think sometimes it happens where the kid’s like, oh my god I was put on the B team, take me out of this sport, and the parent’s like, heck yeah I’m taking you out of the sport, and it does reinforce this idea of if you’re not at the top of this, I’m embarrassed or I’m ashamed or you should be embarrassed or you should be ashamed, let’s not put ourselves in a position where everyone can see that there are kids that are more skilled than you are right now. We’ve got to be okay with that, and we want our kids to be okay with that.
REENA: You know, on this topic of embarrassment. It is really embarrassing when your kid loses his cool or her cool and throws things and really shows that they’re disappointed or frustrated. How do you help them understand about dealing with their emotions in a tough moment like that?
LISA: I’m so glad you brought that up. It’s not in the letter, but oh my gosh, if this this your kid you’re probably like, oh man, well this doesn’t feel good, this isn’t a good look, my kid’s over there having a tantrum and throwing their helmet and stomping, this is not okay, so I think another pass that a parent can take at it is to say, you’re not to do that. That’s not okay. You’re making a scene in the middle of the game when your teammates need to carry on and it’s not fair to them for you to have a tantrum while the game is still going and where they can see you, and so I’m going to ask you not to do it. And what you may need to do is to say, instead, I’m going to teach you how to breathe yourself through a lot of upset because the letter writer’s also saying these guys are getting teary and crying, it’s not like they have tremendous control of their emotions, right?
REENA: That’s a good point.
LISA: So, the parent might say buddy, you cannot throw your helmet, that’s a nonnegotiable, but you are getting frustrated and so why don’t we do some box breathing or you practice some box breathing so that if you feel yourself welling up or if you feel your emotions getting the better you, you’ve got a strategy for getting them back under control where you can maintain your dignity and let your teammates play on. So, you could do that.
REENA: So, if box breathing doesn’t work are there other things that you can do to walk them off the ledge and not freak out?
LISA: Well, I do wonder, could the kid take a little walk? Or could the kid find you in the stands and lock eyes with you and you give them a nod, right? Or could the kid go stand by a coach for a minute? Or could the kid, here’s what I think would be really interesting, in that moment, is there any way they can pivot their attention to what their teammates need from them right now? That’s the other thing I’m wondering about in this letter is these boys, all athletes, are surrounded by athletes who are making mistakes too, and so one of the things, as you know, swipe number 17 on this one, is I wonder about a conversation where the parent says, yeah, no I saw that you missed that layup, did you notice that kid Tommy missed a layup too? Did you see what happened? Did you see how he handled it? I’m assuming that not every kid is falling apart all the time, I’m sure plenty of them are, but I’m wondering if the parent could point out the kids who are making mistakes, same kind your own kid is, and saying, did you see how Tommy handled it? What do you think of how he managed that? And turn the focus off of themselves. That’s what’s so hard in this moment is that in the middle of a team sport a kid is getting overwhelmed thinking about what they just did 30 seconds ago. We want their attention on the game, on everything around them, and not getting caught up on themselves, so can we direct their attention to the other teammates and who might need some support or who might’ve just made a mistake and how can that kid get in there and help them out?
REENA: So, getting the athlete not to just look inwardly but to see what else is happening beyond the scoreboard, beyond that moment, on the field?
LISA: Yeah, and how teammates they admire manage when mistakes happen. And this is where pro athletes, they’re obviously operating at a completely different level, but pro athletes miss stuff constantly and make mistakes constantly. I mean pro baseball is a game of failure. If you’re batting 300, you’re doing great, right? And so even while watching pro sports with kids we can say like, see how that guy struck out? See how he went back to the dugout? That’s what we’re going for here.
REENA: That’s great because they’re idolizing these professional athletes that they want to be and like and replicate, but you’re saying pointing out those moments when it doesn’t go their way. I’ve got to tell you that there’s some athletes that if it doesn’t go their way, they’re not exactly the shining examples.
LISA: Exactly. Right? Exactly, and those are good ones too because you’re like, man, his teammates are counting on him and he’s over there having a hard time. I hope he can find a way to manage that better going forward. You can talk about that, but honestly, if you watch pro sports, there are errors constantly that the best athletes are handling with tremendous dignity, they shake it off and they get right back in there, and so anytime you can use that as an example, I think you should.
REENA: What do you think when you deal with kids who just feel this pressure with sports? Or also the reverse, kids who just don’t want to do it because they’re not good at it and it takes time and effort, I mean years. I mean I struggled with tennis and now I’m an adult and all I want to do is play tennis all the time because finally things are clicking. How do you take frustration on the field and turn it into something positive?
LISA: I think the key is in the last question this letter-writer asked about tolerating not being the best.
LISA: And I think if we say to our kids, sports is not about being the best, it’s about getting better, and just make that the mantra at home. Playing sports is never about being the best, it’s just about getting better. Like, Reena, you will never beat Serena Williams.
REENA: Are you sure about that?
LISA: Yeah, I’m pretty sure.
REENA: Are you sure? Our expectations may be different.
LISA: Okay, but you know that and so if you set this up for yourself, like you’re going to be the best tennis player in your community and that’s the only way you can enjoy the game, you are just in terrible shape coming out of the game. If you set it up for yourself that every season you’re going to get a bit better at tennis, you’re going to enjoy it and you’re going to have fun and you’re going to keep getting better. And so one of the best gifts that sports can give our kids is comfort with the idea that even if you are the best at something, you’ll be the best at it for 20 minutes until somebody better comes along. We have to be okay with that and our kids have to be okay with that and sports are made to teach that to us and our kids. And so in terms of motivation, the way kids stay motivated in school and in sports and in everything is not about being number one, if that’s the goal, it’s not going to be a very fun game. If the goal is improving skill, figuring out where you can learn and grow, then I think kids can start to have fun, and that’s a way to guarantee pleasure for everyone, even if they’re not starting with a great skillset or they’re not all that naturally athletic. If it can be about getting better, they can have fun.
REENA: That’s good. So, Lisa, what about the kids who are just really good and they don’t even need to try, they just show up?
LISA: Oh, man. This is where growth mindset hits its limit really fast, and I think it’s really an interesting thing. No one loves growth mindset like I love growth mindset in terms of motivating kids, but it comes up against the reality that there are some kids who are working so hard and getting incrementally better, and then there are some kids who are so gifted in their skills that they hardly practice or they’re dogging it at practice or they miss a lot of practices, and they’re starting because they are so talented. That happens in school, and so I think, again, just as we have to be like, you know, the kids who are doing better than you, they’re working hard, if you want to do better you can work harder, as much as we need to be honest about that, we also have to be honest that we are sometimes surrounded by people who are so gifted that they don’t have to work that hard and they will still be better than we are, at any variety of things. And the more a parent can be like, yep, kiddo, that’s how the world works. It happens in life, it happens in all sorts of domains, and then to say, so what you can do is you can watch those kids closely and see what you can learn from them. You’re not going to catch them. You’re not going to catch them. But is there any way that having that kid on your team who is just dazzling can inspire you, can cause you to stretch, can cause you to push, can help you get better, even if you’re never going to surpass them, but the key in this, Reena, it’s not the lyrics it’s the tune. It’s not the words, it’s how they’re said. It’s the parent being like, yeah, no there were people I met in school that I didn’t even know could be done. That was pretty humbling, and I just realized I wanted to be around them as much as possible to breathe the same air and see if I could pick up some of what they had going on. We have to be okay with that because that is how the world works and if you are not okay with that, if you set this up like, kiddo you’re supposed to be the best and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t and there’s no one you can’t beat, then it’s going to be a path of frustration and disappointment because there are talented people around us, and better off to be inspired by them than humiliated by them.
REENA: Interesting. There’s so much that sports can help us with life. So, Lisa, what do you have for us for parenting to go?
LISA: Well, what I love about sports, and especially when we talk about growth mindset is that you can then expand that to all sorts of things. So, most kids, when they play sports in practice, do see themselves get better and then when they come up against something hard in another part of their life, say algebra or something, they can draw on that or be helped to draw on that. So, what I mean is if you have a kid who runs into algebra and is like, woah, what is this? It can be really helpful to say, you know you used to feel that way about layups and then you practiced and practiced and got better and better through practice. Algebra is the same way. You may feel like you don’t know what you’re doing right now, but I promise you, if you practice and practice you will get better. You’ve seen it happen in sports, it will happen the same way at school. I promise you just stick with it. And it can make a big difference.
REENA: An important lesson to learn early on. That is so true. You’ve got to put in the time.
LISA: Yep. Got to put in the time
REENA: I’ll see you next week.
LISA: See you next week.