Dad, I Need Grit (part 2): Allow failure to work its magic

See part 1 in this series: Dad, I Need Grit: Who are our kids playing for?

Allow failure to work its magic.

When your child does something significant on the athletic field and other parents are expressing their appreciation of his or her skills it’s hard not to feel filled with pride, and even harder not to allow that pride to spill over into thinking we’ve done something special as well. 

And why not?

We take them to training and games many times a week. We spend an awful lot of money on playing fees and equipment and even personal coaching. Some of us put our hands up and help with the team or club or the grounds, so yes, it is nice to ride on the coattails of our young athletes and feel we are very much a part of it.

I know how it feels. And if I think I’m innocent of such self-satisfying grandeur then I only have to reflect when my son makes errors, strikes out, gets injured, or is not picked on a team. How does my sensitive ego handle it then? (That’s rhetorical)

If you’re anything like me, then internally, you’re being eaten up. We want our kids to succeed so much we do feel the impact of their rollercoaster ride of ups and downs.

We acknowledge failure with a smile on our face knowing it’s an essential learning tool of life, but we’ll do whatever it takes to protect our kids from failure because we’re also protecting ourselves from failure’s grief.

Let me confess something to you. When my son gets injured it causes me more frustration and anger than anything else. He’s had some beauties, so to say; and right before major representative tournaments as well. I want so desperately to step in and protect him somehow from this side of failure—when his body fails.

I think someone needs to protect me from this failure more than my son needs protection. He has learned to handle the pain of missing out and is incredibly diligent with his recovery exercises. He said to me recently, “Dad, if I can’t handle these little injuries now and put them into perspective, I’m never going to have a chance if I do suffer something serious when I play overseas.” (His application to exercise and stretching has always got him back on the park much sooner than expected.)

He allows failure and injury to play its natural course, but I want to interfere with it.

I’ve seen how we can also interfere with the magic of failure by trying to over prepare our kids for failure. You’ve heard the old adage, if you fail to prepare then you prepare to fail. Yet, I’m referring to a young athlete who has prepared and still has the misfortune of failure—or possibly the benefit, depending on how one looks at it.

A well-meaning parent may use what they think are wise and invaluable words when they confront their child with, “What if…?”

What if you don’t get selected? What if you get injured? What if you don’t play your favourite position? What if you’re in the weaker team? What if your friends are chosen and you’re not? What if you don’t make the major league? What if you don’t get the grade you need? What if this or that happens?

You know what I’m talking about here. “What ifs…” can be sensible and help a person ‘hedge their bets’ and bring balance to their thinking, but they can also send a message of doubt and insecurity, of uncertainty and lack of vision. I’ve heard “what ifs…” used both positively and negatively—most of the time negatively. And when the term is used negatively, we fear the possibility of failure for not only our kids but also the grief it brings us.

If we teach our kids how to cushion the blow of failure and attempt to let them down softly, we are not properly preparing them for life because we are not letting life and failure do their work.

Something else that is quite noticeable in our super-encouraging era of sport parenting and coaching—we’ve become over the top to some young players when they get out in baseball to try to build them back up, and over the top in our accolades when a child does something good—even if it something that is a given or expected.

Some of you may get me wrong here, I hope not. I’m all for encouragement. And I understand certain kids are at different levels and need some confidence building.

However, there is a growing number of young athletes that have become extremely reliant upon having their ‘tires over inflated’ and when failure hits, they go into meltdown.

A father who coaches his own young son (age 8) asked me how to deal with this. He was at his wits end about how to stop his son from having meltdowns. The son was a good little player who was super-encouraged by his dad when he got out or made a mistake, and was super-praised when he made a great play or hit. I told the dad to stop being super-encouraging and super-praising. Just say to him, “don’t worry, next time,” and “well done, nice job.”

The father saw changes within a couple of weeks. The meltdowns became far less. The son was no longer craving the attention as before; he got on with the job of being part of a team and doing. The father stopped over compensating for failure and allowed failure to work its magic.

As parents, we play a massive role in raising our kids, whether they’ll be all-stars or not.

The key is to learn to get out of the way—the more we interfere with failure the more our kids do not learn grit.

The father I just spoke about made the hard decision to do what is unnatural in all of us and get out of the way. He realized he was the problem…and also the solution. 

Take the pressure off yourselves, parents; release your kids and let failure work its magic. 

- Mark Maguire.

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