How to talk to a disappointed athlete

How to Talk to a Disappointed Athlete

I remember crying on the car ride home from the state championship track meet.

It was the first year that pole vault was a sanctioned event for girls in Washington state. I co-held the state record heading into the meet, and since I’d won state before (when ladies pole vault wasn’t yet a sanctioned event), I expected to win again.

But I didn’t.

I prepared well, and I competed hard. I performed my BEST. (Quite literally. I vaulted the exact height of my previous best.) But at the end of the day, a competitor who I’d never heard of before, vaulted higher than me by three inches.

I recall feeling deeply disappointed. Second place isn’t what I wanted. No state title to my name. And I was a senior, so I wouldn’t get a second chance.

My competitor jumped an impressive nine inches higher than her previous PR. Simply put: she threw down. It’s not that I lost. It’s that I got beat.

Every athlete is familiar with the pain of losing. Sometimes athletes lose because they fail to perform to their potential. Sometimes it’s because they’re just out-performed by their opponent. And while both defeats are painful in their own right, bouncing back from them is part of being an athlete.

That tearful drive home was just one of countless times that my poor parents had to deal with a disappointed daughter slumped in the back of the car. I can only imagine the pain they must have felt. Not because I didn’t win, they could care less what place I got, but because I know that it was hard for them to see me so sad.   

And I know this is the case for parents everywhere. You are your daughter’s biggest cheerleader, and seeing her disappointed is painful. But what can you do or say to support her? Here are a few suggestions from an athlete who had her fair share of sullen post-competition car rides:

  • While it is painful to see your athlete deal with disappointment, it is not your responsibility to rescue her from it. Learning how to deal with losing is one of the biggest life “wins” your athlete can gain from sports. Understand that you can’t make her feel better. And even if you could, you’d be robbing her from the valuable resilience and strength she’ll cultivate from the experience.
  • Provide your athlete unconditional SUPPORT. It’s her coach’s job to coach her. It’s your job to support her.*
  • She will bounce back. She will be okay. Confidence is born out of struggle. Allow her the opportunity to grieve and grow.

While I didn’t walk away from that track meet with a state title, my memories of that day are fond. I’m proud of my performance, and grateful for the lesson I learned about defeat. I share this now because I’m not sure my parents would have guessed that, fifteen years later, their tearful teenager would regard that day fondly… But I do.

I encourage parents to remember that, next time you drive a tearful athlete home from a disappointing loss. She needs your support, but she will be okay.

*If you aren’t sure exactly how to support your daughter, trust me, you aren’t alone. CLICK HERE to watch a short video with more constructive guidelines, suggestions, and conversation starters! And, if you like what you see, then SUBSCRIBE HERE to receive a video fresh to your inbox every Monday!

How to talk to a disappointed athlete video

The 4-video series, “How to Talk to a Disappointed Athlete” is part of ZGiRLS’ ongoing Parent Video Series. Don’t miss out on this convenient weekly insight! Have these digestible and useful 3-minute videos delivered fresh to your inbox every Monday.

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  1. I love Z Girls and I love this new addition to the wonderful organization.
    Thanks for this article and the series of videos! You all are wonderful!