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The Worst on the Team

Jun 13, 2014

We’ve all been there: your son couldn’t wait to try baseball, until he found he was the worst on his little league team. Your daughter loved her gymnastics class until her friends got moved to the professional team, and she didn’t make it.

You can’t really blame a child for wanting to quit when he’s not excelling at a sport. It can be a huge blow to one’s self esteem to be the worst at something, especially in a team environment when your performance affects everyone else’s. On the other hand, many parents struggle with the concept of quitting – if your child has committed to something, shouldn’t she honor that commitment?

According to our Kids in the House experts, the answer isn’t an easy “yes” or “no”. It depends on your child’s temperament, the nature of the coach, and your own values. But most experts and parents agree that there are definite lessons to be learned from choosing to stick it out.

Keeping your child motivated to stay on a team when their performance maybe isn't something like the other players is hard,” admits Tim Wheeler, a father and coach. “You are asking a lot of your child, particularly if they see a big difference in how they are performing and how the other players are performing. If it's affecting your child in an adverse way, you have to recognize that, but I think it's important -- and a huge lesson can be learned here -- for your son or daughter, reminding them that they made a commitment to the other team members when they first joined. The coach drafted them or selected them to be on their team and they expected a return on that commitment. It's a great life lesson to tell your son or daughter: you wanted to play on a team, you tried out, you were drafted, you have to fulfill your commitment to your team. If at the end of this year, you don't want to play anymore, that's fine. You have to fulfill your commitment to the coaches and the other members on the team.”

Michael Gervais, PhD, a sports psychologist who works with elite athletes, urges parents to look at the bigger picture in order to gauge whether a child should quit or stick with a sport. “I think what's really important, whether we are good or not good at something, is that if we are finding meaning, if we're finding enjoyment, if we're finding a way to find out who we are, it's fine. (In that case), support the child to stay with it. However, if the child is miserable, it's probably not a great fit. Maybe there's a different sport, maybe there's a different activity.”

You may be able to help your child find the enjoyment and meaning Gervais speaks of, simply by shifting his focus. “Physical (achievement) is what's on the scoreboard, and unfortunately too often that's all we consider as parents or coaches,” David Palmiter, PhD, laments. The psychologist and author says he would rather parents focus on three things:  “They have fun, they develop character, and they get good physical activity. So, if I get at least one of those things, that's a win even if the scoreboard suggest otherwise.”

Palmiter points out that there is a valuable parenting lesson in participating in a sport, especially when a child isn’t a superstar.  “It's amazing to me how often sports promote very same character points we're trying to promote our children. Doing things we don't feel like it, being kind to others, hustling all the time, taking the best out of adversity, learning from it and not letting it sink you, moving on. They're the same thing we are trying to (teach our kids) as parents.”

If your child does decide to stay with the sport, Gervais offers advice on how to keep her self esteem intact despite adversity. “Those that have pursued their potential have been met with criticism. It’s just that it’s a part of the process. And something that they taught me is that what other people think of them, whether it’s kind or not kind, doesn’t actually matter as much as what we might think. It’s those basic elements of being able to be connected to the arc, to be connected to what the pursuit is that has a greater volume for those that are on the world stage,” he explains.  “A natural part of being a human is to have other people give us their thoughts, and sometimes they’re great and supportive, and sometimes they’re not. And if we can devalue – in a gracious way, in a kind way – what other people think of us, and increase the value of how we are feeling in experiencing this moment, it becomes really powerful.”

How exactly does a child do this? Gervais explains, “There’s a simple tool that can help with this. Many athletes that I work with talk about the challenges of being coached. And sometimes in youth sports that can be really embarrassing. So what we do, is we ask them to just develop a ‘screen’; a filter; and the information that is coming in is the stuff that’s going to help them be better, and the information that is coming in that is not supporting them, is not part of them believing they have what’s possible; it just drops to the wayside. And a really concrete example of this is a colleague who was in youth football, and early on he was berated by his coach. And then as he moved into the high school ranks, same experience, coaches were screaming at him. And as he moved into the college ranks, it was the same thing. And what he figured out early on was the importance of just absorbing the things that are going to help him get better. So when a coach would say to him, I’ve told you a 1000 times, when you get to the line of scrimmage, I want you to take one half step back. I don’t know how many times I need to tell you this. You’re never going to make it to the next level if you don’t get this right! Most people hang on to the last part of that statement. But it’s the first part that was all he paid attention to: I need to take a half step back. And so that half step back becomes the focus of his mind as opposed to the criticism that comes along with it.”

For more advice on helping a child who is struggling with a sport, watch these videos on Kids in the House:

How to overcome negativity and criticism - Michael Gervais, PhD

When your child is the worst player on the team - Michael Gervais,PhD

When your child is not the best on the team - Tim Wheeler

Emphasizing the psychological benefits over physical wins in sports - David Palmiter, PhD

*Originally posted on HuffPost Parents

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I always felt like I was the worst on the team. But I had great parents who were always supportive and taught me to laugh at myself sometimes.