Tuesday night, election night, we drove 3.5 hours through evening rush hour in Chicago to sit on cold, wet steel bleachers in 39-degree rainy weather to watch Robbie play in the first game of the Horizon League tournament. It certainly puts life in perspective. While the nation listened to pundits making "game day" predictions on which states would be blue and which red, we were watching two soccer teams battle it out for the privilege of playing again in the cold and rain later in the week. Sadly, Robbie’s team lost, 1-0, and he was devastated. That night lots of teams and individuals had the sweet experience of winning while an equal number had to face the dark demons of loss.
We parents know how difficult a loss can be, especially in a particularly significant game. A loss hurts as much at age 6 as it does at age 66. The only difference is that at age 6 the after-game snack usually wipes away all disappointment. Knowing what to say and when nothing should be said is really difficult. When Robbie came off that field Tuesday night we could see how hard he took this loss. He is the team captain and they had just beaten this team Saturday night to qualify for the tournament, so hopes were incredibly high that they could pull off another win. This tournament was the qualifier for a spot in the NCAA Division I bracket, and last year the team didn’t make it into the tournament. So, a great deal was riding on this win.
We told Robbie how well he played, which was true, but it was small consolation. What else could we say except, "You’ll get them next year." But those are empty words in a moment like that. For the three seniors, one of whom spent the last half of the season with a bad ankle injury and limited playing time, there won’t be a next year. This was the moment, and it was gone. On that election night, a bunch of candidates would lose and there wouldn’t be a next year for them either. I keep thinking there should be a club for those who lose big contests where they can commiserate.
So how do you approach your child after a loss? Gingerly! The swirl of emotions can make your child turn into Regan from The Exorcist, head spins and growl included. There is very little they can hear through the pulsing rage in their heads. They may reject any attempt on your part to be conciliatory and supportive, including hugs and kind words. Or they may show a deep need to be surrounded by your warmth. Only you can read their cues, and even then they could turn suddenly since this is an emotional occasion. The main thing about loss is that the feelings do dissipate over time, but that time could be long or short. You’ll never know.
Hopefully the coach sets the right tone by being upbeat and not accusatory. No amount of blame will change the outcome. Later in practice, the coach can address what he or she saw as the weaknesses of play. By that time, players will be ready to hear suggestions and absorb criticism without being so raw. If the coach has been rough on the team following the loss, it would be a good idea for you to counter those comments in the things you say to your child. Let your player know that despite the coach’s assessment, you did see good things happening on the field. Be sure to come prepared to list those positives when you greet your child coming off the pitch. Hopefully he or she hasn’t been the brunt of direct blame from the coach, but if that does happen, you have to mitigate the sting. Even if the remarks have some truth to them, this isn’t the time to lay such a burden on your child’s shoulders. So talk about how the coach is as disappointed as the team, and sometimes when people are upset they say things out of frustration that aren’t appropriate. Let your son or daughter know how proud you are that he or she kept playing and worked through the setbacks that occurred during the game. Here’s when mentioning a positive such as, "you shielded the ball better than you ever have" goes a long ways to helping your player find some comfort.
Another obstacle might be the opposing team’s reaction to its win. If this is an intense rivalry, the winning team might be overly celebratory at the end. There may even be taunting or a show of dominance that rubs salt in the wounds. Therefore, I want to speak to the art of winning here. While the natural inclination when the win matters so much is to go wild with joy, having joy in the win is different from rubbing the opposing team’s noses in the loss. Remind your player that win or lose, their after-game behavior should be courteous, not snide, and non-confrontational. Coaches should prepare their teams for both a win and a loss, so the team’s behavior doesn’t skew into boorish or even cruelty.
Finally, as a parent you may be helpless to give immediate comfort in the face of a loss, but your constant support and positive outlook will smooth the path to "recovery." Don’t spend the ride home talking about the other team as if it came from the depths of hell or laying blame on some of your child’s teammates. That creates an unproductive atmosphere for moving past the loss. Sympathize without blame and let your child vent if that’s what he or she needs. You can agree if they express some frustration with the play of others, but let them know that no matter what play occurred, the game outcome can’t be changed. Therefore, they need to let the coach handle that aspect to help the team improve. For youth players, a distraction such as ice cream or a movie can usually wipe away all frustrations. For older players, they just need to work it out on their own over time. Either way, your role is to provide the steady, devoted support. During the course of their soccer careers, our children will face dozens of devastating losses and an equal number of surprising and satisfying wins. And none of them will mean as much as having their parents’ unconditional love.