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Leading the League in Smiles: How to deal with losing in youth sports

Updated: Feb 27

One of my greatest passions is coaching youth sports. All three of my kids have been involved in athletics from an early age including basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, tennis and flag football. I have coached each one of my children in different sports at various times throughout the last several years.

This winter I am coaching my son Owen’s youth basketball team in the seven through nine-year-old division of a local church recreation league. I have coached in the league for many years and it has always been a very rewarding experience. The league is well run and it’s a great place for kids to learn the game and build relationships with their peers from all different areas of the city.

Our team has yet to win a game this season, standing at a record of 0-7 with four games left to play on the schedule. As an “expansion team” we started the year with all new players, some of whom have not played on a team for the last year or two due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, this is the first time that some of our players have ever played on an organized basketball team. Just the simple fact that they’re playing again or playing for the first time is a personal victory for many of these kids.

Despite the fact that we’ve lost every game, our players work hard, continue to improve and most importantly have fun playing and learning the game of basketball. So how do you keep the kids positive and motivated even when they’re losing games? What are the best ways to deal with losing?

Let’s face it–losing is hard. It’s frustrating. It can be upsetting, disappointing and sometimes it’s embarrassing. It’s normal to be upset when you lose, especially for youth players. It’s ok for them to be upset. Everyone wants to win, celebrate and feel that proud sense of accomplishment.

Here are five things I’ve done with my team to help deal with the harsh reality of losing games.

Set priorities: At the start of the season, I told our team I had three main priorities for them–to have fun, get some exercise/be active and learn how to work together as a team. Notice that “winning games” did not make it into that list of my top three priorities. I often tell my team to not pay attention to the scoreboard during games at this level of basketball. Just play, have fun and always try your best. There will be plenty of time to place more emphasis on the scoreboard in the years to come.

Focus on the positives and don’t dwell on mistakes: Be an eternal optimist who always sees the glass half full! I praise our team for what they do well each game. I focus on anything we did that was positive. Perhaps someone made a great shot or a nice pass. It can even be as simple as recognizing supportive players on the bench who cheered on their teammates or displayed good sportsmanship to the other team. I also acknowledge their mistakes to give them a sense of how they performed, but I don’t place as much emphasis on them as I do for the small, moral victories. I let our team know I’m proud of them for putting forth their best effort and coming to play with the right, positive attitude. I also continually emphasize how far they have come during the season. Despite the losses, we are an incredibly improved team from where we were on the first day of practice in early December. I have to give it to my kids as no one has complained all season long. In our sixth game of the season, we were actually ahead at halftime and you should have seen the excitement in all their faces. In the end, we wound up on the losing side, but they played a great game.

Acknowledge what you are grateful for: Here at No Excuse Produce, Coach Hunter typically ends his group sessions by gathering players together in a circle and having each one say two things they are grateful for. This method helps put youth sports in perspective when we think about all the everyday things in life we’re grateful for. Our team should be grateful they are healthy, happy children who have the ability to physically come to the gym and play basketball every week. That is not the case for every child in life. Many children do not have the same opportunities due to physical, mental or financial challenges.

Realize that losses are part of life: We’ve all heard it before, but it’s true–“losing is part of life.” In life, just as in sports, some days you win and some days you lose. Losing helps create mental toughness and forms a sense of resiliency in kids. Move on after a loss. Get up off the ground and come back to compete the next day. The story continues–you have to go back to work the next day regardless of whether you won or lost a game. Keep moving forward and don’t look back.

Don’t underestimate the power of making new friends: Youth players aren’t likely to remember wins and losses or who scored the most points. What they will remember is having fun and making friends. Those are two things that will stay with them. Strong bonds and camaraderie can often be forged between teammates. Some of the best friendships I ever had were solidified through sports on the court or field.

Above all else, I strive to make our weekly practices and games fun for our players. If they’re having fun at a young age and come back and sign up the following season, that’s all that really matters.

A few weeks ago, after we lost our fifth game, I started to wonder if my emphasis on having fun was really getting through to our players. Four days later we had our weekly practice. Every player was in attendance and I could tell they had a good time competing against one another in our drills and mini-games.

A grandparent of one of my players caught me on the way out of practice and said “You lead the league in smiles, Coach!” That comment really resonated with me. We may have lost every game, but our players are having fun and making memories. Life is not always about winning.

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