Every parent dreams of their young athlete winning that big football championship or being the fastest swimmer at the meet. The medal around their neck, the trophy in their hands – not only do the adults fantasize about this amazing moment, children use these dreams of great success to motivate them to do better in the sports that they play.

At the same time, while Madonna immortalized the famous line “there’s no crying in baseball” in the movie “A League of Their Own,” youth league coaches understand that couldn’t be further from the truth. Children take loss very hard when it comes to sports. Usually, their thoughts revolve around two themes:  how the loss was their fault, and how disappointing they are to their team, their coach, or their parents. Less common, and more worrisome, is that a loss might let them feel disappointed in themselves – provided they have given their all in preparing and playing of course.

Sadly, in sports there is usually only one true champion, meaning there’s a devastating amount of broken hearts left on the field after a game. Win or lose, children and teens experience these emotions at an extremely high level, and sometimes this can do them more harm than good.

Winning – Reactions, Sportsmanship and the Right Way to Do Things

Coaches and parents push youth athletes to succeed, and the greatest payoff that exists is finally winning that grand title or trophy at the end of a sports season. However, it’s important that children understand how to win with grace, dignity and respect. Younger children can be especially unfiltered, and they don’t always understand the difference between being proud of themselves and gloating. Thankfully, this is the same age where disappointment often disappears as the field fades away in the rear view mirror.

All coaches should talk to their teams about the respectful way to win, and great leagues put practices in place that make way for sportsmanship. For instance, many youth leagues make opposing teams high-five, shake hands or perform spirit tunnels for each other at the end of the game. This promotes a more united atmosphere instead of a sometimes toxic “us versus them” mentality. Insisting that the kids – at all ages – shake hands and thank the referees also slows down celebratory brags, and underlines

Parents also have a responsibility to teach their children humility, as well as to not get cocky when they win. One win or title doesn’t ensure a lifetime of greatness and a youth athlete still needs to practice and stay prepared for future seasons. Without taking anything from the price their child should feel, winning parents can stress that all kids have prepared hard for the game, and show example by congratulating an opponent on the parking lot. A “Good game” goes a long way.

 Losing – Handling the Emotional Devastation

One truth that needs to be taught to youth athletes by both coaches and their parents is that there is more than one way to succeed in sports. A title isn’t everything – children who start a season and show improvement, even if they aren’t the best, are still pushing themselves and this is something that needs to be rewarded.

In extracurricular youth league sports, it’s a good idea to promote hard work over winning and competition domination. While it would be nice to be the best and win big, children aren’t always capable of this, and again – in a tournament of eight different teams, only one will take 1st place. This doesn’t mean the other seven are failures.

Coaches and parents alike need to talk to children beforehand about the possibility of a loss. A loss doesn’t mean that the world is coming to an end, but instead that they have the ability to practice, get better and do an even better job next season.

As a final word, remember that all adults have a responsibility to highlight great plays, good ideas and displays of sportsmanship on both teams when talking about the game, and being good hosts (or guests) with the opposing team.