Helping Young Athletes Develop a Healthy Competitive Mindset

It’s important for children who are involved in athletics and team-based activities to learn from a loss or setback instead of letting it negatively affect their attitude and performance. Violent incidents involving athletes (and/or their parents) and referees have made recent news headlines, such as the Detroit-area soccer player who was accused of punching a referee after receiving a red card in a recreational league game. Unfortunately, this act of violence was fatal.

Of course it’s necessary for all young people to know that violence is never the solution, but the adrenaline rush that accompanies sporting events can present a challenging emotional situation for child athletes and sport parents, making it necessary to address the young athlete’s disappointment or anger before emotions flare out of control.

Teams are like families, and they can choose to let their values ooze out of their conversations, decisions, policies, and practices. Meetings before and after practice, as well as quick conversations during practice can be opportunities to reinforce good sportsmanship, respect for the game, and for opponents and other participants. The locker room, bus, and field are settings ideal for story, example, or testimony that says to all, “this is who we are.”

Many young athletes need a paradigm shift in how they see competition

The most fundamental challenge coaches and sport parents face in youth athletics is shifting the athlete’s thought process about the competitive experience.

I’m referring to a shift from:  “This loss is proof that I’m no good and therefore devastating.”  To: “What does this outcome represent to me in the way of feedback that I can use to get better?”

This more logical approach will not occur to most deeply competitive athletes immediately – as in the first 10 minutes after a loss.  Unfortunately, it’s common for athletes to blame others for a defeat, whether they put it on the referee, teammate, coach or parents. The Detroit soccer player clearly allowed his poor sportsmanship to reach a dangerous level; he is being charged with second-degree murder for fatally punching the referee (and father of two).

In the case of young athletes, the sooner the initial “Boo-Hoo” (pity party) can be replaced with the question “What can I learn from this?” the sooner real progress can begin toward the goal of performance excellence.  This paradigm shift represents a more direct pathway to future victories than the pathway of anger, resentment, self-degradation, and self-pity – which only prolongs the immaturity of the athlete.

This is not to say that the outcome of a competition doesn’t matter, but it matters in a different way than most kids are being taught.  A poor performance is not who you are; it’s only what you did.  It is the responsibility of adults- parents, coaches, mentors- to teach young athletes this concept through leading by example and offering encouragement.

When a child is emotional following a loss, penalty or setback of some kind, they need to feel understood, but they also must learn to handle defeats as a learning experience. This is where you- the parent, coach, friend or other adult- can help an athlete approach the issue from a positive perspective, guide them on the path to evaluating their own missteps, and not the possible fault of others, and inspire them to try again. Eventually children will begin to process these concepts on their own, allowing them to accept this day’s outcome and work toward higher levels of athletic performance for tomorrow. - David Benzel

About the author

David Benzel
Sport Family Coach at

Founder of Growing Champions for Life, David helps sports parents and coaches incorporate positivity and persistence into their communication with the young athletes who count on their encouragement and guidance. An eight-time national water skiing champion, five-time national record holder in water ski jumping, former World Championship U.S. Water Ski Team coach, and proud professional sports parent, he understands first-hand the challenges and rewards of competition. His extensive experience as a corporate leadership coach for Nextel, Sprint, Allstate, Balfour Beatty, The Villages and other companies provides David with unique insight into the skills needed to excel in sports, business and life. He brings an athlete's discipline, a coach's inspiration, and a parent's practical experience to his mission to grow not just champion young athletes, but holistically well-rounded individuals equipped for lifelong excellence.

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