By Dr. Alan Goldberg
There is nothing quite as emotionally excruciating and heartbreaking as watching your own child suffer through the process of getting cut from a team that they had their heart set on making. You’ve watched them practice over the years to get good in their sport. You saw how hard they worked to prepare for these tryouts. You know how desperate they were to make this team. You even shared their dream. You encouraged them to try hard and keep going despite minor setbacks, injuries and frustrations all along the way. You probably even helped them practice out in the backyard for more hours then you can remember now. You know just how important this sport has become to them. Heck, because of that it’s probably gotten just as important to you! You could feel their growing anxiety as these tryouts approached. Forget that! You were just as anxious if not more so than them! And then your heart soared when they came home after that very first day of tryouts with a big smile plastered all over their face and an enthusiastically positive report of how things went. You were hoping and praying that their coach shared this same optimistic assessment.
And things seemed to go just as well the remaining two days of tryouts as well which is why you were totally stunned to see the tear-streaked face of that kid you love coming up the walkway towards the front door on the day that everyone was supposed to find out who made the cuts. His head was down and his shoulders slumped under the weight of what was obviously a crushing disappointment. It was in that moment, even before you knew exactly what had happened that you had that protective and primal urge to throttle the coach for causing your child this pain. Through crocodile tears and half sobs he relates to you the heart breaking experience of rushing to the team bulletin board after school with a group of the guys to check to see whether their names had made the coach’s “list.” He was the only one of his friends who hadn’t made the team! The ONLY one! He was totally devastated and had all he could do to keep it together around his buddies. And now he’s standing in front of you broken and crying and all you can think about is how you can possibly take away all this pain and make the coach suffer.
What should you do when your child gets cut? What should you do when they come home with a broken heart? If only there was an easy solution to help them immediately feel better like there is with any other bump, scrape or cut. You put on antiseptic ointment and a band aid, wipe the tears away, give them a hug and everyone feels better. Unfortunately this kind of cut isn’t so easily or quickly healed. How you as a parent handle this painful experience with your child can help him/her begin to put it into perspective and grow from it. Here’s some Do’s & Don’t’s as guidelines:
LISTEN – Listen carefully to what your child has to say about his/her experience. Try to understand exactly what happened to them from their perspective. In order to do this you must remain silent inside while they share with you the events that led up to their getting cut. Gather as much accurate information from them as possible.
DON’T ASSUME ANYTHING – Remember, your child is reporting from a very emotional place. When they say that the coach did or said “such & such” to them do not automatically assume that this is what exactly happened. They may not be such an accurate reporter at this time. At some point you may need to directly consult with the coach to understand his/her perspective.
LET YOUR CHILD HAVE HIS/HER FEELINGS – One of the hardest things for a parent to do is to watch your child suffer. The natural, knee jerk reaction in this situation is to race in and try to make your child feel better immediately. Try to contain yourself. They are disappointed for a very good reason. They had their heart set on a goal and they failed to make it. Disappointment, discouragement, sadness, anger and other feelings all come with this package. Don’t rush in to save your child from these emotions. In fact, your child needs to experience these sometimes uncomfortable feelings in order to constructively work through the experience and put it behind them.
BE EMPATHIC – So instead of trying to make your child feel better, just reflect back your understanding of the difficult feelings that they are going through. Let them know that you can see their upset, disappointment, sadness, anger, frustration, etc. Really try to step inside their shoes and feel what they’re feeling, from their perspective. Empathy is the main thing that a child needs from a parent when that boy or girl is really hurting. Empathy is what they need when they’re dealing with strong emotions. Immediately after getting cut, when they are still very raw emotionally they might not be able to use your advice, suggestions or words of wisdom. What they will be able to make very good use of is your empathy. Being empathic oftentimes means that you don’t even need to say very much. You can let a child know non-verbally that you understand how they feel by how you interact with, look at and hold him/her.
DON’T LET YOUR OWN FEELINGS STEAL THE STAGE FROM YOUR SON/DAUGHTER – Keep in mind that everything about your child’s sport is for them, and NOT for you. If they have a disappointment it belongs to them. It’s not yours. They were cut and let down, not you. Do not distract your child from their disappointment with your own feelings and issues. I know this goes without saying but don’t get upset with them because they were cut. Do not blame them. It’s not their fault.
SAVE YOUR CRITIQUE OF THEIR EFFORTS UNTIL AFTER THEY’VE BECOME ADULTS – The very last thing a disappointed athlete needs to hear when they’re in the midst of strong emotions generated by being cut is a parent’s criticism about their lack of training, efforts, practice time, etc. This kind of information, even if accurate will not be at all helpful to the child-athlete. It’s really a timing thing here. What they need from you is your love, support and emotional sensitivity, not your “helpful suggestions” about all the things that they didn’t do right. It goes without saying that at all times you want to try to stay in your role as the parent and not confuse what you say and do with the coaching role.
DON’T ENGAGE IN COACH-BASHING WITH YOUR CHILD – The natural reaction when a child is cut from a team is to respond with hurt, anger and blame for the coach. He was blind as a bat, terribly biased, had a vendetta against my kid, or was just plain dumb as rocks. While some or all of these accusations may actually be true in your child’s case, going there with your child is not helpful and will teach them the wrong lessons about their failure. Remember, most coaches are human, they have their strengths and weaknesses, they all have their “blind spots,” they either volunteer their time or work for peanuts and unfortunately, the vast majority of them are not well trained. If you have a serious concern with how you think your child was dealt with during tryouts, don’t complain to your child about all that was wrong with the coach. Go instead to the coach and when you do, leave your strong emotions at home.
ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO TURN HIS/HER FAILURE INTO A POSITIVE LEARNING EXPERIENCE – No question that failing not only feels badly, but it flat out stinks. You want to help your child understand that these kinds of emotional setbacks can form the foundation for their later successes in life, both in and out of sports. Along these lines, teach them to view getting cut as providing them feedback on what their weaknesses are and on specifically what they need to work on to increase their chances of making the team the next year. What this entails is that you have to encourage your child, if they are old enough, (12 and up) to go ask the coach specifically what he/she thinks the athlete needs to work on to get better. (If you have a younger child then you can either accompany your child-athlete and ask the questions for them or meet with the coach alone .) Asking the coach for this kind of information is the athlete’s right. The very least that a coach can do for the cut athlete is to provide a clear and specific explanation of what weaknesses need to be strengthened in order to make that particular child a better candidate for next time. What is absolutely critical to keep in mind when you or your child approach the coach after having gotten cut is to do so in a non-emotional, non-confrontational manner. The attitude that you or your child must convey is one of needing the coach’s “help.”
HELP YOUR CHILD UNDERSTAND THAT GETTING CUT DOES NOT MAKE HIM/HER A FAILURE – When kids (and even adults for that matter) fail, it’s always easy to fall into the trap of feeling like a failure. You want to help your child understand that failing is an integral part of the learning process. It is NOT a static thing. It does NOT define who you are as a person. And it’s not like there’s only one tryout ever and that this particular tryout determines a child’s success or failure in their sport or life. Certainly your child my actually feel this way right after they get cut but it’s your job to help them see otherwise. Failing is something that happens to us on the road to success. Failing does not define whether we are adequate or not. Failure is feedback and you can’t learn, grow or get better at anything without enough of this kind of feedback in your life.
ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO CONTINUE TO PURSUE HIS/HER DREAMS – Along these same lines, you want to teach your children that failing and disappointments are nothing more than bumps in the road. When they hit one, stumble and fall, their job is to get back up and keep plugging along. Encourage your child to fight through their disappointment, to not give up on their dream, and instead, to work even harder towards that goal. Your timing with this information is important. Your child will not be able to hear this message right away after getting cut. Give them ample enough time to feel sad and discouraged. Listen to them, be empathic and don’t take their feelings away. Perhaps later that night, the next day or even the next week or two you can begin to introduce the idea of and encouragement for continuing to go after that dream.
MODEL APPROPRIATE RESPONSES TO FAILURE – You can directly teach your child the healthy ways to respond to failure by how you interact with them around their experience of getting cut. Kids learn their most powerful lessons not so much from what we say as much as from how we say it and how we then act. Conduct yourself like an adult and provide your child with a powerful model for handling setbacks. When it’s appropriate, time-wise, share with your child some of your heartbreaking setbacks and what you did with them to turn them around. Let your child know that he/she is not alone in their disappointment and that it’s a common experience in life.
Dr. Alan Goldberg is a nationally-known expert in the field of applied sport psychology, Dr. Goldberg works with athletes and teams across all sports at every level, from professional and Olympic caliber right down to junior competitors. He is the author of 25 mental toughness training programs and Director of Competitive Advantage. His website is www.competitivedge.com.