Coming Up Short: UW Psychiatrist Says Kids Can Learn From Sports

Kid playing baseballMADISON - Watch any of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and you'll see it - what legendary sportscaster Jim McKay famously called "the agony of defeat."

But while Olympic athletes wrestle with sports disappointment for a brief period of time every four years, young athletes experience the same thing more frequently on a much smaller stage.

That doesn't make it any easier to deal with, says Dr. Claudia Reardon, psychiatry chief resident at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and American Psychiatric Association member expert on Sport Psychiatry.


"Youth sports can be a really physically and emotionally healthy activity, but the reality is that not every bounce, play or game is going to go your child's way," says Dr. Reardon. "The way you choose to handle can really help them grow, both as individuals and as athletes."


Step one is to acknowledge your child's feelings. While they're likely to take things to a catastrophic extreme when they come up short or their last-second shot bounces off the rim (think phrases like "I'm the worst player EVER" and "My life is ruined!"), you can help them take a more measured approach.


"Saying something as simple as, 'I understand you're feeling upset that you didn't win the race' can open up a discussion and let them know you're there to listen," says Dr. Reardon.


And it's okay if the conversation stops there: Some children need to work through disappointment on their own.


Step two is focus on the things that went right on the playing field, and then look at whatever went wrong as an opportunity for the child to improve his or her skills. Focus on developing a sense of resilience and determination.


"Focusing on the positive is especially important if your child is a perfectionist, because he or she is likely to focus on their mistakes, instead of all the things they did right," says Dr. Reardon. "I often find it useful to ask children if they think their favorite athletes ever make a bad play or lose a race, and if they then decide to quit. That usually opens their eyes a little to the big picture."


Dr. Reardon strongly urges parents to make sure that sports disappointment doesn't slide into bad sportsmanship - i.e., anger or hurling accusations of cheating at the winner. (See Russian Olympic figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko, who sniped at U.S. gold medalist Eavn Lysacek, for a perfect example of how not to handle finishing second.)


"Sometimes, children need to be reminded that failing to make a play or win a game doesn't mean they're a failure overall," says Dr. Reardon. "There are still lots of great things about them, and let's face it - everyone fails sometimes."

Date Published: 02/25/2010

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