Sports Parenting: How to Encourage Your Kids When They Lose the Game

By Jessica Wolstenholm

Now that the school year has gotten into the swing of things, the season has come for little league soccer games, football under the Friday night lights, and every other sport you can imagine. While these days spent on the court or in the field bring joy, tough moments and conversations arise too. To shed some light on parenting athletes, we asked blogger and dad Aaron Conrad to share his approach in a four-part series over the next month.

Before my son was born I read a quote by Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly. The quote stuck with me. I remember thinking I needed to “get ready for that day” and wondering how I would handle it. “That day” did eventually come, but first, let me share the quote….

“We are here to be there for our kid when they score the game winning goal… and especially when they don’t.”

A few years ago, my son, who was 10 at the time, was asked to play in an Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament with some of the other kids from local travel teams. It was a good team with a solid collection of players from the area. As he was out-of-town for the team’s only practice, he had to learn on the fly. As expected, the results were a little rough in the beginning. However, by the end of the tournament, they got it together and were making a furious comeback.

In the final minute of the last game, my son was fouled when his team was down by two. It was his chance to tie the game. An excellent shooter, he calmly stepped to the line and made the first basket. His coach called a time out, and he stepped back to the line. One down, one to go. He shot the ball and it bounced out.

The other team rebounded it and headed down court. My son’s team fouled one of their players who made his first free throw and missed his second. My son rebounded and was fouled by the other team! With seconds left on the clock, he had the opportunity to tie the game once again.

First shot…swish.

Second shot rimmed out.

They get the rebound, the horn sounds, and my son is crushed. After shaking hands with the opposing team, I could see that he was not taking it well. He began to cry, saying it was all his fault. After their team huddle, we took a walk and I put my arm around him. I reminded him that his team missed 15 free throws during that game – his just happened to come at the end. I reminded him that this was a tournament and there would be more opportunities to make the game winning shot. I did my best, but my heart was breaking for him.

What do you say to your child after a loss? I’m no expert, but here are a few things I try to remember to do:

1. Don’t focus on what ‘could’ve happened’ – No matter what sports our children play, or how good they are, no one goes undefeated forever. There will be losses. When losses happen, it’s important that we do not focus on their faults. There will be a time to review what could have gone differently. Reviewing it immediately after a loss is not that time.

2. Encourage always – In that moment following a loss, it’s critical that we focus on the positive moments and encourage our children for what they did right. An arm around their shoulder or a pat on the back will go much farther than reminding them what they did wrong. There will be other games and other moments. What we do in the moments following a loss may make all the difference in that next game or moment. Colossians 3:21 says: Fathers, do not provoke your children, less they become discouraged.

3. Use loss to build character – While losses are difficult, they do provide opportunities to build character. As adults, we understand that live also holds losses. As our children go through life, there will be losses that have nothing to do with sports. Relationships, occupations and opportunities will come and go in their lives too. How we respond to the losses will help guide them in how they should respond to other kinds of losses later on. Our words will be the training ground for the future, choose them wisely.

If you’re wondering how my son has responded in the years and games that have followed, he didn’t have to wait too long for that next chance.

The next weekend placed his travel basketball team directly across the court from the same team that had won the game the previous weekend. As the final minute drained to a close and the game tied, my son put in what would be the go-ahead and winning basket. I made sure he realized that.

God is a God of second chances. I know these games are “just a game,” but I couldn’t help but think of the brokenness we can feel when life can crush us. Yet there are so many “next times” just around the corner. There is a chance to shine, to remember the pain but experience the joy.

His team would go on to lose in the championship game in another very close contest. If you’re wondering…he was 8-8 at the free throw line for the tournament too. Remember…

“We are here to be there for our kid when they score the game winning goal…and especially when they don’t.” (Rick Reilly)

Aaron Conrad is a husband, father, follower of Christ, Tar Heel fan, random tweeter and believer that Love Does!