Top tips for fostering resilience in young athletes
Sports can help our kids and teens build self-esteem, make lasting connections, and learn to overcome adversity. From losing a game to not making the team, sports can come with difficult moments and enormous pressures.
It’s understandable that as a parent or coach, you’d want to do everything in your power to protect a young athlete from disappointment or heartache. But, as powerless as it may make us feel, the truth is that life is full of inevitable challenges and disappointments. And to deny our kids the full human experience can actually rob them of the gifts of resilience and grit.
Supporting and empowering young athletes as they move through hard things like disappointment or self-doubt can help them build resilience over time through their individual experiences. With your help (don’t worry — we’ll be here too), they’ll be able to more easily recover from tough times, gain confidence, and be better prepared for whatever life brings their way.
That’s why we’re here to talk about how you can give a child or teen athlete the necessary, proven tools to build lasting resilience over time. It all starts with supportive relationships.
Okay, sounds great, but what is resilience?
Simply put, resilience is the ability to overcome or “bounce back” when difficult things happen. Say, for example, your child is struggling to keep up with their teammates on the soccer field. After the first game, they may come home feeling embarrassed and defeated.
Your gut instinct may be to pull them off the team, promising that they’ll never have to face those seemingly unbearable emotions on the field again. Or you could use this as an opportunity to build resilience by encouraging them to open up about their experience. Maybe you share a time when you also felt less than your peers but decided to stick it out anyways (This is called modeling, and it works!).
Avoiding challenges only works to foster fear. So remind your child that this tough thing won’t be as disappointing or scary every time they try it and then work together to put a plan into place. For example, you could put together a practice schedule to help them improve their soccer skills, so that they feel more confident when they courageously rejoin the team.
Research shows that thanks to neurobiological processes and genetic makeup, some kids are naturally more resilient than others. And we should note that social determinants, including systemic injustices, socioeconomic status, and physical health can all play a part in resilience. That being said, rest assured that the ability to rise above difficult times is something that can be learned and improved upon over time.
Why does it matter so much for athletes?
Sports will inevitably bring moments of frustration, overwhelm, and disappointment. Even the greatest athletes of all time have fallen short, not made the team, or lost the game. The internal and external pressures can be a lot for a young mind to navigate.
But letting our kids sit in moments of discomfort (ugh, we know it’s hard to do) while offering support can show them that they have what it takes to navigate even life’s trickiest moments. Research shows that resilient kids are more likely to take healthy risks and are more trusting of their instincts. They are also more curious, can solve problems independently, and have a greater ability to push themselves outside of their comfort zone.
And learning to be more adaptable and flexible is what we’re all about here at Bend Health. Like a tree, we believe that whole family mental health starts with a strong foundation of resilience — or deep roots — to cope with whatever life blows your way.
How do I teach a child to build resilience?
Now that you understand the importance of cultivating resilience in children and teens, let’s dive into the “how” with these tried-and-true strategies.
- It starts with supportive relationships. It probably comes as no surprise that this work starts with you (and that’s why it’s so awesome that you’re here reading this article!). Studies show that children who experience chronic adversity fare better or recover more successfully when they have a positive relationship with a trusted adult. Having a safe, nurturing community which can include parents, siblings, coaches, teachers, mental health professionals, friends (especially those who have shared experiences), and neighbors can make a huge difference in fostering healthy adaptability. We know life gets busy, but try spending one-on-one time with your child each day simply listening to them, asking curious questions about their sports experiences and goals, and letting them know that they are valued and capable. Notice when they are most open and communicative and try to adjust your schedule to protect this window of time.
- Learn to label and regulate emotions. We all lose our cool sometimes, so it's understandable that your child might slam doors or scream out in anger when they’re experiencing a difficult situation. Remember that something like not performing well at practice may not feel like a big deal for you, but to a kid or teen, it can be all-consuming. Instead of dismissing how they feel, let’s look at ways that you can help them to label what they’re experiencing and find some tools that can help them begin to regulate their emotions.
- Breathe together. Box breathing is a great go-to tool when everyone needs to calm down. Imagine a box has four sides. Think about breathing in for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 4 seconds, letting out your breath for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, and then doing it again 4 times. Model this the next time you’re having a big emotion, and see if they’ll give it a go with you.
- Create a calming corner. Sometimes we all need a little time and space to regulate our emotions. Help your child or teen find a place within your home or that makes them feel safe and cozy (don’t worry — it doesn’t need to be complicated, and you don’t need to buy anything). Maybe they want to include things like pillows, blankets, a journal, books, headphones, twinkle lights, candles, etc. If you're a coach, maybe you create a designated space in your training facility. Remind them that they can go to this space anytime they’re having a tough time and need to decompress.
- Take time to track moods. Take some time to remind kids or teens that all feelings are valid, and labeling them can help to make sense of what’s going on inside their bodies and minds. Give them a permission slip to feel a range of things — sadness, jealousy, anger, etc. You may also consider creating and hanging a simple mood chart in your home or in the locker room so that they can start putting a name to how they feel.
Teaching and modeling resilience doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not always easy. This is your reminder that you don’t have to do it alone. Our team of coaches are experts in empowering resilience and flexibility in kids, teens, and parents to help families flourish. They are able to listen with empathy and compassion, while also teaching your child to build resilience through evidence-based tools.
By taking the time to learn about resilience, you’ve taken a huge step in guiding your young athlete through the tough stuff! By no means do you need to do it all perfectly, but start small by connecting with your child when they’re facing challenges, help them name their emotions, and remind them that you’ll be there to help them along the way. Try to be patient with yourself and those around you as you hone these skills. With your support, an athlete can be both a resilient champion on and off the field.