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Cornered Coach: Blowing Up and Bouncing Back


A million splinters.

That's one of my personal minor hockey memories.

As a young goaltender, I recall one game when I gave up a late goal that cost us an important win and smashing my stick into smithereens over the crossbar. Even back then, goalie sticks were expensive and Dad chewed me out for blowing my cool and blowing his budget.

"I work hard to pay for those sticks and it's embarrassing to see you act like that!"

Dad was right, of course. Besides, it wasn't the stick's fault. Why should a trusty Sherwood have seen their life come to a premature conclusion because of my own lousy play?

Fast forward to the present day and I've got two lads of my own involved in sports, as we search for the middle ground when it comes to competitive spirit and how much they should care about winning or losing.

Nobody likes to lose - unless, of course, you're a Leafs fan hoping their heroes would tank down the stretch so the Buds could have a better chance of landing Auston Matthews. (Bingo! The plan worked!) 

But how should a young athlete react to failure?

My 10-year-old son is a passionate basketball player and was part of his elementary school team this year. In their final game of the season-ending tournament, he took an accidental elbow to the head from an opponent during the last minute of play. Momentarily stunned, the little guy he was guarding got away and proceeded to sink the game-winning shot.

Max was devastated.

"It's all my fault!," he raged with tears in his eyes. "If I stuck with my man, we would've won the game."

While his teammates yukked it up and wolfed down cookies and juice boxes, Max stomped around the gym raging at the basketball gods for conspiring against him. As a parent, of course, you hate to see your child so distraught and you burn rubber trying to ride to their emotional rescue.

"Everybody makes mistakes, buddy. You still played a great game." 

"If you wouldn't have got whacked in the head, you would've stuck right with him."

"You guys still had a great tournament and you made some fantastic plays out there."

Unfortunately, Max didn't want to listen to the droning tones of parental logic.

"I HATE basketball," he wailed. "I'm never going to play again!"

"Houston, prepare for lift off....Dad's about to blow his top!....3....2......1......Blast off!"

"Alright, that's enough," I finally shouted. "You're not going to win every game and if you can't deal with losing, maybe you SHOULDN'T play basketball anymore!"

What I should have said?

"Okay, buddy. You're obviously upset and I get it. It was a tough way to lose. Let's talk about it later and see how you feel."

What I should have known?

Kids are extremely resilient and, a half hour later, Max was out in our backyard shooting baskets pretending he was LeBron James, with the bitter memory of the tough loss completely erased from his mind. 

As a parent, and as a coach, you always want your athletes to display good sportsmanship and enjoy the game even when they lose. But at the same time, there's nothing wrong with kids showing that they care. Taking responsibility for mistakes and owning up to them is actually a positive character trait that children can take with them into adult life. After all, nobody buys into a person who's always chirping "It's not MY fault" when things go wrong on the job or in a relationship.

So, here's the deal.

If your child has a tough day on the rink or playing field, it's important that they take responsibility for their mistakes so they can understand what to work on to improve. At the same time, parents and coaches have to allow young athletes to blow off a little steam after a disappointing outcome. As we mentioned earlier, kids are very resilient and they have the ability to bounce back from failure very quickly.

In no time at all, they'll be pounding back the cookies and juice boxes while giggling in the backseat of the family sedan with their buddies, as you drive to the next life lesson that makes being a parent and a coach such a fascinating ride. 

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