Dealing With Disappointment Is One Of The Most Valuable Life Skills To Be Developed Through Sports. So Why Are We Trying To Avoid it?

2020 has provided a reminder on how things don't go according to plan. Trending with our youth is to bypass dealing with disappointment, so we can jump to the good stuff. That is a mistake.

·        Strikeout.

·        Miss the open net for a goal.

·        Air ball in basketball.

·        Own goal.

·        Ground ball through the legs.

·        Losing.

·        Injury.

·        Do not make the team.

·        Not in the starting lineup or not enough playing time.

·        Do not like the coach’s decision or don’t get along with coach.

·        Unfair call by official.

Oh, and new ones thanks to the pandemic:

·        Cancelled season.

·        Program cancellation.

·        Scholarship cancelled.

Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash

There are lots more than these 14 disappointments.

Sports can give us all great lessons and life skills. One of the biggest and best is dealing with disappointment, or unexpected outcomes.  

We see evidence in youth sports that confirms that foundational skills around sports participation are being ignored. Participation overall drops significantly once teenagers hit 13 years old.  

While many factors may contribute to this, understanding that our inability to teach how to deal with disappointment is one of them.

Aspiring to win is an outcome specific goal. Striving to get better is a process specific goal.

We have more control over 1 than the other.  

What happens when much focus is on what we have little control over?  Disappointment.  Disappointment that lingers and impacts the future in an unproductive way.

There seems to be a push to remove this from the youth sports experience.   

Disappointment often leads to frustration, frustration to learned helplessness, helplessness to lowering self-esteem and confidence. They are all connected.

Learned helplessness is not a term we use every day, however does the definition of this term remind you of a situation you have witnessed on the field?

Learned helplessness is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try — even when opportunities for change become available**.

How is that disappointment handled? Is it different today than years gone by?

Dealing with disappointment is arguably one of the biggest concerns today in teaching our young athletes.  In an age of immediate gratification, everyone wants results now, without necessarily going through the steps and progressions that are essential to getting desired results.  Our culture has a drive-through mentality.  We want our food now. We need our texts answered now.  This mindset has affected our collective ability to deal with things when they don’t go our way.

When The Physical Movement spoke to Coach Frank Fascia in edition 2 of The Physical Movement in May, he brought up an interesting point around how parents have changed over the years.  The point was that parents today are more inclined to protect their children from disappointing experiences in youth sports. He relayed the example of getting cut from a team. Years ago, that meant trying harder to make the team next year.  Today, it often means going to play on a neighboring team and different organization.

The concept is that something is wrong with the first coach, and our young athlete needs to be protected from that,  as opposed to using it as an opportunity to get better for the next time.

Here is our full discussion with Frank Fascia.

The Physical Movement is a weekly free newsletter delivered to your inbox on leadership through the lens of sports. If you enjoyed this article, feel free to subscribe and share.

Share The Physical Movement: Play. Lead. Be Strong.

If we break down learning any skill, failure occurs before success. Any of us trying new things will struggle before getting better. From hitting to skating, whatever the skill is failure will occur early on. Of course, children being most resilient simply get up and try again. As young athletes get older, that “try again” part gets harder and harder.

So while all young athletes have experienced disappointment in learning a new skill, why does it seem to challenging today to let our children be disappointed?

The Physical Movement also spoke to Ben Fanelli of Heroic Minds in July, and he reminded us that “people forget the confidence and belief side for a young athlete and how important it is”, in the context of development. Not just development within a sport, but life development.

If you have not caught up to the interview with Ben, please do.  A great example of dealing with an unexpected situation. You will enjoy it!

Self confidence is proven to be both genetic and learned *. 

Let’s focus on the learned part.

It can also be unlearned.  25-50% can be genetic (according to analysis of research documented below*).   That leaves 50% or more to be learned.

Let’s repeat: 50% of more of confidence is learned.

Situations where the experience chips away at self-confidence is detrimental to development.

As leaders,  part of our role is to help accommodate growth of self-confidence, and to prevent it from getting broken down.

Dealing with situations that are disappointing in nature, or different than the anticipated outcome, are one of the building blocks around belief and self-confidence.

While at first glance, we might think that protecting our young athlete or engineering their experiences might be a great life hack or shortcut, in fact that is not providing the opportunity to grow and learn.

As coaches, sometimes we feel our success is tied to the athletes being successful. However, not letting your young athlete experience disappointment is hurting them in the long run.

While disappointment never feels good, it is a healthy emotion that has a lot of value in helping children in propelling development and achieving goals.   If young athletes feel that no matter what they do, they cannot fail or will not struggle, what happens when eventually life throws them an outcome they did not expect or desire?

While adults may have had enough disappointment in their lives to want to stay away from it, young athletes are still learning and can benefit from overcoming a challenge.

If we acknowledge that learning new skills and being exposed to competitive situations will yield bumps and failures along the way, what can we do as parents and coaches to allow our young athletes to use challenge and disappointment and growing tool?

Here are 6 ways to use disappointment as a building block for development:

1.      Establish the standard that unforeseen or disappointing situations are part of the experience. If we sign up in anticipation of the positives of the experience, then there will be situations that do not go according to plan. If the standard is set, then no one will be surprised when they occur. It does not mean they won’t be frustrating. But the impact should be different.

2.      Establish the mindset of controlling the controllables.  Teaching our athletes on what to focus on is controllable. Being process focused as opposed to outcome focused is one way to integrate this mindset into the personality of your team and players.

3.      Build a connection with your athletes to inspiration around conquering setbacks. Resiliency, persistence and positive attitude are all characteristics that coaches need on their teams.  There is never enough of this. This, again, is more learned that genetic.

4.      Don’t dwell on the setback or disappointment. Learning from it and using it as fuel to get stronger and better is one thing. Re-living and re-hashing over and over again is another.

There are some great historical examples of how athlete have used setbacks to build the foundation for success.

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.- Michael Jordan. Greatest basketball player in history.

5.      Accept that setbacks are part of competition. The best hitters in baseball succeed 3 times out of 10. There is only one tournament champion. Most will come away without the outcome they desire. This comes with the territory.

6.      Embrace the successes. Small victories turn into bigger ones. Know what accomplishment and progress looks like, reward them. Don’t minimize them.

In a recent podcast with Joe Rogan, actor Matthew McConaughey refers to challenging times as running uphill.   He also speaks of good times as running downhill. He combines both by  reminding himself by not sabotaging running downhill. Meaning, don’t get in the way when things are going well.  (podcast link below).


Additional resources on the topic of dealing with disappointment.

Diving deeper into using disappointment as a learning experience.

 *Is confidence genetic?

**Learned helplessness examined:,opportunities%20for%20change%20become%20available.

Michael Jordan, a profile in failure:


Joe Rogan with Matthew McConaughey