Last Sunday, my 10 year old daughter tried to make Diving Nationals on the 3 meter board. She went into the meet feeling confident and excited thinking she could do it. She had trained hard, and felt ready. We even planned a little dinner out for her to celebrate if she made it. We were excited for her and hoped we would end the day celebrating – but it wasn’t to be. Early in the meet she made a mistake on one of her dives and it scored low. We knew right away that this wasn’t going to be the day.
She tried hard on all her dives, but her overall score wasn’t high enough. I wasn’t sure how she’d react, and was anxious to see her after the meet. She was really, really sad. In fact, she didn’t say much for a full two hours. She cried on the way home, and I stopped the car to sit with her and comfort her for a bit. I told her I was so impressed by how hard she tried, and that we are really proud of her. I didn’t want to take away the pain, just sit with her while she coped with it. I was very careful not to dismiss the loss as accidental or bad luck. I want her to feel she has control over her life, whether for good or for bad. Sometimes a loss just simply means there is more hard work to do.
Her diving coaches talk about the importance of mental toughness all the time. This is a skill that helps us in all areas of our lives whether it’s sports, school, or work. We need to be able to handle loss and failure, and come back from it stronger and more ready. The thing is, while everyone can understand this in theory, the very best way to learn it and develop it is getting through really difficult things.
Sometimes as parents our instinct is to do everything we can to shield our kids from pain and failure. It’s awful to see our kids in pain and to watch them struggle. Sometimes we jump in to fix things when they are struggling or in trouble. Sometimes we do things for them. Sometimes we intervene to get them out of trouble when they’ve done something wrong. As much as we want to see them succeed and be happy, these short term fixes could have unwanted long term consequences.
I used to see this a lot as a college psychologist – incredibly talented college students falling apart with no idea how to cope when they failed for the first time. Or feeling scared to tell their parents that they failed at something. These amazing young adults had never failed at anything before. And when it happened (and it will happen), they often felt devastation and confusion about what it means and how to handle it. The reactions were diverse – and not always healthy. For students who had handled adversity in the past, it was often a rallying cry and they went out in the world and handled it. But for other students who had never faced failure in the past, they often struggled and doubted themselves.
“I never had to study before”
Some students who felt things always came easy to them confused failure with an inability to do something. They never had to try before – so if they failed it must mean they are not capable of doing it. Instead of buckling down and tackling the challenge, often this meant avoiding the task and walking away. But there is a big consequence to making that choice.
Avoiding something might spare the difficulty and frustration of struggling and possibility failing again, but it also leaves a hole in your self-esteem because you didn’t overcome. It increases anxiety about encountering something you can’t easily manage again. It makes you more likely to become perfectionistic about things, and do everything you can to avoid this in the future. For some, failure meant great internal despair and questioning themselves. Feelings of worthlessness, anger, and self-doubt ruled.
Face it Head On
The way to build mental toughness and self-esteem is to face things head on and cope with difficult feelings and tasks. Try again. Try harder. Study more. Ask for help. Put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to be something other than perfect. Don’t worry so much about what someone else might think of you. Don’t be afraid of difficult feelings. You can cope with sadness and loss. They are part of life and we can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid them. These feelings are just as important and useful as happiness and joy. Don’t be in a rush to get rid of them.
And as a parent, don’t try to shield your kids from them with distractions and false reassurances. Try not to tell your kids they are the best if they’re not. They see through it, and it can make them feel anxious if they’re getting false praise. Instead, tell them it’s ok not to be the best, but they can work really hard to get better. Do they feel like gave it their all? Are they happy with how it went? Let them own it and feel that they have an impact on the outcome. Praise them for their effort and bravery in doing something difficult. Maybe with enough work and determination they can be, but remind them they will be loved and accepted either way.
Don’t Let Fear Hold you Back
No matter what you achieve in life, you are already worthwhile and lovable. Find what you’re good at and what you love and do it. Don’t be scared to put yourself out there. Even if you fail, you have learned more about yourself and you know you are out in the world really living. And it strengthens you.
After a night of sadness and frustration, something pretty terrific happened. My daughter started thinking about what she needed to do to make Nationals. She realized that her degree of difficulty just wasn’t high enough. The next night, she tried a dive she hadn’t been willing to try in the past. She knew she needed it, and the loss at the meet motivated her to go for it. She’s now working on it and hoping to compete it at the next meet. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I am very grateful that she got to have this experience. No one is fixing this for her. If she works hard with her coaches she has a great chance to make it – and it will be her accomplishment. If she doesn’t make it, she also wins by having the experience of getting through a loss and disappointment. She won’t be scared of failing. She will know that failing is part of trying, and that she is valued and loved no matter what. That is something she will carry with her every time she faces something scary or difficult for the rest of her life.