How To Support Your Athlete When Life Is Not Fair

Hey everybody. I am coach Rebecca Smith and I am talking to parents today.

I was talking today with a baseball mom, and I always love to get a question from a mom other than gymnastics, because it’s still applies. And I know a lot of you guys out there are not necessarily gymnasts.

So I wanted to talk about this question that’s all about supporting your athlete when life is not fair.

The mom was talking about how her son had the highest batting average on Little League. He is super consistent. This kid has a really great attitude. He is really positive. He’s the best kid on the team. As far as showing up early, helping other kids out, being supportive, he is that kid who you really want on your team. But he’s not getting any playing time. He’s moved up to this travel team and the coach does not value the qualities that he has. The coach is looking for home runs. And if he’s not scoring home runs, he’s on the bench and that’s just the way it is.

So even though he’s working hard and he’s got a great attitude and a history of success, he’s smaller and he’s not in that same place as the other bigger kids on his team. His mom was asking me how she should navigate this disappointment and failure that he’s seeing, even though he’s doing everything she’s ever told him to do. He’s a good kid. He’s a great teammate, but yet here he is on the bench watching other kids win the championship.

A couple other examples of this are in gymnastics; maybe your athlete works all year for a skill and then she gets injured or there’s a setback and she can’t do it in time. Or maybe there’s fear. Maybe there’s an injury. Or there’s a setback and you’re like, this is not fair. She’s been working so hard. And now this coach has given you this arbitrary deadline that’s multiple months before she would need to compete anything like this. She’s got all the other three events and every single other skill on this particular event, but it’s one stinking skill. And the coaches are like “Sorry, that’s policy, you’re staying back a level.” And all of her friends are moving forward without her. That’s like the biggest possible devastation. Or then there’s injury.

We can come up with a million different ideas of disappointments or things that make you feel like life is not fair. But how do we help our athlete when they’re doing their best and you’re so proud of them, but they’re not being acknowledged for the role that they’re playing on their team. What do you do?

I’m going to always start with the PerformHappy mom mantra. This is what we say in PerformHappy that would just remind us to stay in our lane. Dads you can use this too. Here it goes:

Food, hugs, rides, tuition.

If you do only that and nothing else you are winning. That’s what I want for parents to do: food hugs, rides, tuition. And if you just go back to that and you sort of center yourself on that and know that your child is going to grow up and they’re going to be okay if we can just own that. If they have the worst season or two seasons or three seasons of their life, they will be okay. Jonathan Horton, who is a multi-time Olympic athlete for men’s gymnastics, failed and failed and failed. That man; if you hear his story, he got last place at his first elite meet. Dead last. The three years before his Olympics, most recently before 2012, was just fail after injury after fail after injury. It was like this guy could not catch a break. And he made it.

So these are the moments where these athletes are building something deep within them that they’re going to need to pull from in the future. We’ve all been there. We’ve all had those years, months, that have not gone our way and we have made it through and become awesome. Just hold that faith that he’s going to get taller, he’s going to get stronger, and he’s going to get better. Just like me – I was way too tall and too scared. I still made it to optional gymnastics because I had that heart. And because I got good at picking myself up after I fail.

What you want to be as a parent is a soft place to live. Here’s a kind of mindset shift for us parents that can help us guide our athletes in a great way. Our athletes go and they get hammered at practice. They get left out and they get yelled at and they’re failing and they’re getting corrected and they’re going through the ringer. And then they come home and you’re like, ‘Oh buddy, I love you so much. Oh, I’m so proud of you.’ And your athlete is like ‘For what? I failed the worst.’ And you say: “Yeah. I love you. Here is your food. I love you. I’m proud of you. You are such a hard worker.”

And we just keep pouring that on them because that’s what we want. And if your coach doesn’t have a growth mindset and they feel like the only thing that matters is outcomes, places, and scores, we can’t control that.

What you can do to support your athlete when life is unfair is continually praise in your homes that attitude, that effort, that continues to give those kids the faith that what they’re doing is good.

And that every time they get back up, that’s building a muscle that talent ball is not building. You know, that giant kid who it comes easy to, or that little kid. In my experience, those kids aren’t getting that grit muscle. So grit is the quality that gets built during these tough times when that kid is disappointed and it is not fair. And if you could mama bear your way in there and change it and just explain like, ‘Hey coach, this is what this is kid deserves. Please give it to him, please.’ If you could, you would, but you can’t in this situation.

So instead we look at it and go, okay, we’re building grit. Every practice has a gift. In some practices that gift is success. And in some it’s character and the character building practices are not the fun ones. And those character building years are not the fun ones, but that’s okay. Because if you can get up again, if you can try again, if you can sit on that bench and have the best stinking attitude anyone has ever seen in you, it will pay off. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in athletes who were not the most talented, who were not the most flexible, who ended up going and competing NCAA D-1, because they just got up and they got up and they got up.

Grit is what we’re building.

And you, as a parent, have to be like ‘Yes this kid’s getting gritty. Look at him, showing up. Look at him, continuing to have that effort.’ And you hold the faith that they are going to be okay and they’re going to get through this and they’re going to be better for it.

Something I really like to ask kids who are feeling sort of stuck is: Do you like a challenge? And this is a cool little inquiry you can do with your kid. Like, ‘Hey, do you like a challenge?’ And then you can bring up how UNO is always cut throat and you know how when we play Sorry, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going for blood.’ When I was a kid, and still to this day, if I’m playing cards or I’m playing a board game, I want to win. I’m super competitive. And would I rather play against my five-year-old daughter and win? Or would I rather play against my sister-in-law who’s also super competitive and really good at it? I would want to play against my sister-in-law because if I beat her, that means something.

So this kid on this baseball team, if he gets some playing time on that team, that matters, right. And ask your kid, would you rather get an A in a harder class or in an easy class? Hard class, of course. Would you rather win against a hard team or an easy team? No question.

We could all sort of dumb it down and we could all do easier things and win, but we know that that’s not what it’s about. And that is why he’s on that team. And that’s why that girl wants to get to that next level with her teammates because she doesn’t want to play it easy. She likes a challenge.

So with that in mind, you can go: ‘Okay I like a challenge and yeah, this is a challenge. I’m out injured and I’m supposed to be training. That’s a challenge. I like a challenge. Or I’m up against this team or this coach hates me, etcetera.’ You look at it and you go, ‘Okay, I like a challenge. Let’s get after this.’ Instead of feeling like there’s all this pressure you’re like, ‘No, I like a challenge. Okay, good. I like to be the underdog. All right. I think I’ve been an underdog before and it has worked out. So let’s go after it.’

If any of you are going through this situation where your kid is disappointed and you’re trying to support your athlete when life is unfair and they’re trying and trying, your homework assignment is to watch the movie Rudy with them.

I know that all the parents will cry at the end. It’s so happy. It’s like this kid who all he wants is to go to Notre Dame and he does everything in his power to do it. And doors are slamming and slamming and slamming in his face. And then you all know it eventually works out and it was just a really sweet and magical way. This kid is through the ringer, he’s too small, everything’s against him. But he keeps getting up and he keeps getting up and he keeps getting up. And then eventually he reaches his goal. And that’s exactly what grit is. Grit isn’t that you’re the one who’s not nervous. Or you’re the one who it came easily to you. It’s that it wasn’t easy and you kept after it.

And so praise in your kid that ‘You’re gritty. That coach’s a jerk. And I am so proud of you for sitting on the bench with a smile. That makes me so proud to be your mom.’ That’s the stuff that we praise because we know if you keep at it and you have grit, you will go anywhere.

For Athletes

I want to give a little quote from Mohammad Ali:

‘He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.’

So athletes, the fact that you have a big goal and you’re falling short means that you’re courageous and you’re trying something hard. And if you’re failing, it means you’re trying something hard enough. If you’re not failing, it’s too easy. So let that challenge be something that lights a fire and you let that failure be something that lights that fire.

That’s like, ‘Okay, I don’t want to keep feeling failure. So I’m going to keep working harder and harder. And I will get there. I don’t know when, but I will.’ And then in the meantime, what’s your athlete’s role? I think a lot of coaches are like, ‘Well if you’re not scoring, then we don’t need you.’ So your athlete feels not important. Or if your athlete can’t hit that skill, then coaches might not coach them. And it’s almost as if the athlete is supposed to just disappear. But guess what? You as an athlete still have a role. If you’re injured and are off on the sidelines, your role is to cheer on your team. Your role is different.

My role was different as a gymnast. I was a leader. I was the oldest one on my team and I was a leader and it taught me how much I love coaching and teaching and educating and leading. When I didn’t make the soccer team in junior high, I threw myself full on and did gymnastics and was like, ‘Okay, this is my sport.’ So every little failure, every little thing puts you in a position where you can become a better person. I know it’s not very fun for a 12 year old to hear that. But man, is it true!

Know what your role is as an athlete and know that it’s okay to have different goals than your coach has for you. If your coach has only goals to hit skills and win points, then you can easily fail. But if your goals are keep a smile on my face, don’t be sassy, keep working at it, make this baby step, then you can walk out of that practice and he’s like, ‘Wow, that was a fail.’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah, but I hit every single thing on my list. I am proud of myself.’ And if you can learn to be proud of yourself in an unfair situation, nothing will ever, ever stop you.

So know that you can have different goals and you can have different goals from your parents. Your parents are like, ‘You got to get that skill or I’m not letting you compete.’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah, okay mom. It’s hard to do this.’ But in your mind you know today that my baby step is this, and this is what I’m getting. And if I do that, I’m going to feel proud of myself, even if nobody else is. And that is part of that character that gets built that Olympians have. Simone Biles – she of course takes input from many, many people, but ultimately she sets her goals. She knows what she’s after.

And I think every single athlete should be on some level in that same position where you’ve got your own goals that you are working toward fiercely and you treat others with respect. And at the same time, you know what you’re there for and you advocate for it. So if you’re an underdog, you let that firefight fit like that. Fire build from the failure. If you are stuck with the little kids like me, you’d be a strong leader. If you’re on the sidelines, you’d be the best cheerleader that that team has ever had. Go watch Rudy.

And then ultimately parents trust that they’re building grit. They’re continuing to put in that effort, they are making progress. You know that they’re going to get there. It just might not be on their own terms or on their own timeline. So you just give food hugs, rides, tuition, and be that soft place to land in the meantime.