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The Drive Home

by Tony Onorato
on Aug-01-2010

It's much easier to be the parent of an athlete who's just won the game on last second heroics. Everyone feels good and is all smiles. What a thrill it is to watch one's child succeed.

However, for every team that wins, there is a team that loses. It doesn't really matter if it was a great play on the opposing team's part or a mistake on your end.

There was some athlete who gave up the game winning hit or struck out with runners in scoring position. Somebody missed the tackle, fumbled the ball or dropped the pass. Someone's son or daughter gave up the winning goal or missed a scoring chance.

Dealing with the agony of defeat is one of the more difficult challenges of parenthood. Seeing one's child in emotional pain and anguish is distressing regardless of the child's age.

The awkward moments that constitute the drive home are the times when parents really earn their stripes. This is when the kids are their most vulnerable. What parents say and do at these times can have a tremendous impact on their child's psyche.

The first thing parents need to be aware of is their own level of emotional discomfort, which in many cases is transformed into some form of anger. It's a matter of keeping track of what one can control and how to direct it.

The tendency of most parents is to want to make their child feel better. They want the pain to go away, the child's pain and their own. The bizarre and sometimes frightening things we hear occurring at sporting events are often related to parents who say and do things to make themselves temporarily feel better even though it negatively impacts their kids.

One of the truisms in life is; pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. The mistake parents are prone to make is trying to remove the emotional pain. There is nothing wrong with experiencing pain. It's actually beneficial to acknowledge its existence as a normal part of life that they will conquer as they build the inner resources and self-confidence that comes with knowing they can and will survive it.

Some parents will skip right to analyzing the game. They want to take the pain away by solving the problems. The pitfall is that if the athlete tends to focus on mistakes and have negative self-talk based on some derivative of "I stink," this will make it worse. It's even an incredible challenge for kids who do not think in this manner because it feeds that negative mindset by focusing their attention on all the things they did poorly at the time when they feel the lowest.

The ride home becomes a mobile torture chamber in which athletes get to relive everything they did wrong. The longer the ride the more often they get to relive it.

Other parents will immediately attempt to cheer athletes up, make them smile or tell athletes that it's all right. The message is often interpreted that there is something wrong with feeling disappointed. Since pain is inevitable, that message increases suffering since the focus is on avoiding pain. Think of the anguish that is created by the dilemma of trying to avoid something that is unavoidable.

Occasionally, a parent will validate the feeling then turn around and psychologically bind the athlete by telling him or her to remember it well so that they will use it as a motivator to avoid feeling that way again.

Athletes start to think of life as all risk and little reward.

What can a parent say or do?

Validate the emotion. "It hurts, doesn't it?"

Make a connection. "It used to hurt me too. It still does."

Provide a little hope. "I learned that it doesn't always feel like it does now. It doesn't last forever. At some point you'll notice that it hurts a little less and that it continues to move in that direction."

Offer some help and space. "Let me know when or if you want some help. I'll be happy to work on it with you."

Let them know you love them and that they don't have to dwell on it. "Hey, I'm hungry. Do you want to get something to eat?"®2002