How to Help Your Young Athlete through Disappointments


In the world of youth sports, there is a lot of discussion around preventing physical injuries. But what if we applied the same logic to the psychological and emotional well-being of young athletes? There are many ways to foster resiliency and ensure an athlete is well prepared to emotionally cope with the ups and downs associated with sports. The key is to help athletes adopt good habits so they are prepared for challenges before they occur.

Resilient athletes are more likely to:

  • Keep a positive mindset

  • Maintain healthy relationships outside of sports

  • Manage stress effectively

  • Overcome challenges

  • Persist through adversity

Resilient athletes are also more likely to have a healthy awareness of what motivates them to play sports. Motivation is an essential element for success in competitive sports. The right balance of internal and external motivation leads to positive outcomes, including more sport enjoyment, a better ability to cope with challenges, and longer-term participation.

Categories of Motivation:

1. Intrinsic motivation is when an athlete is driven by internal factors. Some examples of this include:

  • Satisfaction from learning new skills

  • Enjoyment of sport participation

  • Happiness from interactions with teammates

  • Pride from putting forth best efforts and overcoming challenges

2. Extrinsic motivation is when an athlete is driven by external factors. Some examples of this include:

  • Winning and results

  • Trophies and awards

  • Praise and recognition

  • Avoidance of coach or parent disappointment or criticism

Extrinsic motives can be beneficial, but with these alone athletes can find it more difficult to overcome challenges and setbacks. For example, when motivated solely by extrinsic factors, athletes are at risk for feeling more anxious or pressured during competition to achieve an expected outcome. These athletes are more likely to become frustrated and discouraged when they are not achieving the results they expect, which can lead to performance decline and even dropping out of a sport.

Alternatively, when an athlete has internal and external motives, they will be more likely to successfully overcome setbacks and challenges. This is because internal motives keep athletes going when challenges come up, and external motives tend to push athletes to succeed in competition. Athletes who have a balance of internal and external motives in sports cope more effectively with disappointment while experiencing greater satisfaction and success.

Sports participation comes with rewards and challenges. Prepare your athlete for a successful sport experience by helping them recognize and adjust their motivation.

  • Help athletes identify reasons for participating in sports, especially reasons that are personally meaningful

  • Write down specific goals that align with your child’s reasons for participating

  • Track progress toward goals, focusing on effort and results

  • Encourage athletes to enjoy the process of training and developing skills in sport

  • Avoid focusing ONLY on the outcome

Acknowledge and celebrate success along the way, remembering success may be internal (e.g., fun, learning, competency) or external (e.g., trophy, praise, winning)

Read More Articles by Dr. Force regarding youth athletes:

The Champion Mindset

School and Sports Schedules: More of a Marathon than a Dash

Coping with Injuries

Erica Force, PhD, CC-AASP Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children

Dr. Force has practiced as a licensed psychologist with a focus in sport psychology since 2012. She is a registered Sport Psychologist for the United States Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry. Upon completion of her pediatric post-doctoral fellowship at Scottish Rite Hospital in 2015, she joined the Psychology team. Utilizing her credentialing as a Certified Sport Psychology Consultant, she sees patients on the Scottish Rite Hospital North Campus in Plano. Dr. Force has co-authored publications in prominent journals focused on the psychology of sport.

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