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Building Resilience In Kids - How Sports Can Help

  The idea of raising our kids to be resilient humans who navigate the world with confidence and a willingness to fail is a very common goal among parents. We want our children to grow up to believe that they can handle adversity, failure and disappointment with their self worth intact. It is a goal that feels so important, yet the practical application of how to actually teach another human how to be resilient can be overwhelming. This is where sports becomes so valuable to both parents and children. 

     The very structure of sport requires its participants to practice resilience. Sports presents the opportunity to experience the challenge of overcoming obstacles, navigating set backs and enduring failures. Shots are going to be missed, competitions are going to be lost and mistakes are going to happen. It is not a matter of “if”, it is simply a matter of “when”. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is also the chance to feel the joy of learning, the satisfaction of progress and the high of winning. These two opposite experiences are paired together within sports. They provide children an opportunity to practice navigating a wide range of emotions and cultivating their response in a safe and controlled environment. 

    Coaches and parents who are tuned into the idea that building resilience is a key outcome  of sports have a significant advantage to make a lasting impact. They can come alongside the child to help them recognize what is happening and help them begin building the muscle of resilience. Here are three things you can do as a parent to seize the opportunity to build your child’s resilience through sports: 

  1. Point out that showing up is brave and praise your child for staying in practice. - Each time a child steps on the field or enters the gym, they are saying “yes” to being willing to challenge themselves to learn. The very act of signing up for a class, a team or a competition means that the child is open to a situation  with an unpredictable outcome. The experience can vary from week to week. The coach’s feedback can be challenging to hear. The game may not go the way they want it to. All of these things are things the child can not predict, but has opted into when choosing to play sports. This is an act of bravery. This is courage in action. It is often overlooked, but we, as parents, can change that. We can use each practice day as a chance to highlight their act of bravery with a simple compliment or observation. 

  • Praise your child on a specific area practice that was challenging where they stayed engaged.

  •  Offer a compliment on how they finished the last drill even though they were tired. 

  • Point out that showing up is brave and you are proud of them for saying yes to the opportunity. 

This positive reinforcement will eventually become their self talk. When they want to join a club at school, but are nervous because it is an unknown situation, they will be able to draw on that self-talk. They will tell themselves that they are brave and they can do hard things because they have heard you praise them on the field after similar challenges. They will be encouraging themselves instead of getting down on themselves. That is a priceless win for all involved.  

  1. Teach that confidence comes from practice and repetition. - Each sport requires practice. There is no way around it. Natural talent will only take a child so far. If a child wants to continue to improve at a sport, they must practice. Oftentimes, practicing fundamental skills can be boring. It is mundane work that leads athletes to be able to make amazing game saving plays. By teaching your child that confidence comes from practice and repetition, you are building their resilience.  By practicing with them, you are teaching them that they don’t have to do it alone. Practicing the fundamentals together can become a time for parents and children to connect. Parents can tune into their child’s goals and then help them put in the work on the fundamentals that will allow them to achieve the goal. This teaches them that they can change their own level of capability.  If they want to be the player on the team that scores the goals, they can go home and practice shooting. When they do that and the next practice they end up scoring more goals, the work they put in is positively reinforced. This boosts their confidence and provides the fuel needed to drive them to want to continue working fundamentals. The message of building confidence through repetition is then internalized and becomes a part of who they are. This lesson will translate to other areas of life too. If they want to get good grades, they will understand that the mundane work of studying comes with that. If they want to have lead in the school play, they will be no stranger to putting in the work in order to achieve a goal. By making practice and repetition a habit, they will draw strength in their own ability to be resilient both on and off the field.

  1. Losing is where we grow. -  A game is set up so that one side wins and one side loses. On any given day, your child can be on either side of that coin. The more often they lose, and struggle, the more practice they get in learning to handle those situations with grace, self confidence and perseverance. It is tempting when our children lose to try to minimize the impact of the loss. We say things like “It’s ok, that team was bigger than you” or “The referee made bad calls, that's why you lost.”. These comments are meant to help our children to not internalize the loss as their fault, however, they miss a key learning opportunity. Allowing your child to feel the disappointment of the loss opens them to asking good questions. Questions like “what could I have done better?” or “what went wrong?”. When we get curious about these things, we stay in a mindset of resilience. We are willing to learn instead of shut down. By being willing to face the adversity of losing with curiosity, our children will be able to assess their performance and identify the things they can practice that are within their control. This helps them to process the pain of the loss and come out the other side with beneficial feedback. This lesson can then translate to the classroom. . A low test grade will be processed the same way. A child who has built resilience on the sports field will stay curious and ask what action they need to take to get a better grade the next time. They will be able to take action and improve on the next test because they have the muscle memory of resilience from their sports experience. 

   The arena of sports provides a multilayered opportunity for growth for both ourselves and our children. When walking with our children on their sports journey, it is important to remember that it is the life lessons, not the wins or losses, that matter most. The lessons and memories that they experience will outlast the trophies, banners or rankings. Parents are a powerful force in helping children to keep this in perspective by using sports to do the amazing work of raising resilient and confident humans.

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