Helping Our Children Navigate Setbacks

I overslept this morning.  The report due to my boss today is missing. My flight home got cancelled.  I didn’t hit my quota this month. The promotion at work went to the other person.  The dishwasher leaked water all over the kitchen.  I wrecked the car last night.  My company announced they are downsizing.

We all suffer setbacks in life.  Some small and easy to manage.  Some large and more life changing. Our children are not immune to setbacks either.

  • Missing the bus
  • Not getting a good score on the math test
  • Not getting invited to THE party
  • Failing the driver’s test

And if they play in a sport, they will likely suffer setbacks there as well…

  • Not having a good practice, or not being able to perform a desired move
  • Missing the game winning shot
  • Losing the big game/race, or not even being in the big game/race
  • Not making the desired team, or not making a team at all

This last one is timely, given many have just left the Tryout/Team Formation portion of the club calendar and our older players are just beginning HS preseason and will be coming up on tryouts for those teams.

So, how do we help them navigate and persevere through the ups-and-downs of soccer.  Note the action is NAVIGATE, not AVOID.  Like us, our children are going to suffer setbacks in their journey, whether we are ready for it or not.  Here are five key actions that may assist you in being ready to successfully manage a setback.

  1. STAY CALM-regardless of the situation, be composed, and do not overreact, and remember it is about them not you. Distressed facial expressions, tone of voice and language can make things worse for our child.
  2. LISTEN AND EMPHASIZE– allow your child to tell their story. Let them share thoughts and feelings and acknowledge them. Do not diminish their feelings or concerns with “It’s no big deal.” “Don’t worry about it” or other attempts to make them feel better.
  3. ENCOURAGE THEM– remind them that this setback does not define them. Who they are is more than this one setback. Congratulate them on their efforts and their willingness to risk failing.
  4. FIND LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES– when they are ready, talk with them about what they can learn from this. Encourage them to focus on themselves and discourage BLAMING others (coach, teammates, weather, etc.) for the setback.
    • Focus on process (skills, effort, attitude, etc.) not outcomes (goals, wins, etc.)
    • Focus on mental and emotional approaches to setbacks.
    • How can they reset themselves to allow for success?
    • What future efforts would they like to make?
  1. SUGGEST SOMETHING FUN TO DO– it may be beneficial to engage in a fun activity “Do you want to get some ice cream?”, “I think your favorite movie is playing now”, “Let’s go get some lunch!” in order to provide an outlet for your child to remove themselves from the negative feelings they are having.

Another aspect of Setbacks/Failures which is often forgotten when athlete faces a SETBACK, is the path to success or growth. It is easy to assume that an athlete who initially has success will always continue along a straight, and upward path. However, the actual path most athletes follow is far less simple. Often it is more like a roller coaster.  Failure is a key component of learning, problem-solving, and eventual success.  In addition, variances in growth (physical, emotional, social, and cognitive) among athletes is also occurring and is going to result in variable development patterns.  These variances may also be a part of current or future setbacks, i.e., no longer the strongest, the fastest, the fittest, etc.  This graphic from Beastmode Soccer is an excellent depiction of the Expected vs Realistic trajectory of success.

Finally, here are two of my favorite quotes regarding setbacks come from noted athletes:

  • “Failure happens all the time. It happens every day in practice. What makes you better is how you react to it.” – Mia Hamm
  • “You will miss 100% of the shots you never take.” – Wayne Gretzky

Hopefully following the 5 steps provided above will assist you to continue in supporting your child’s efforts and goals and provide them and yourself the opportunity to relax as you move through the ups and downs of their development.

Best of Luck!


Here are several articles or videos which address how to help our children deal with setbacks.

Other motivational quotes can be found at: Sports Feel Good Stories-Quotes to Motivate and Inspire

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