Most of us have received vaccines to boost our immune defenses. Vaccines act like small doses of adversity for our immune system, leading this system to become stronger in fighting off disease. Likewise, your child’s difficult sport experiences provide the necessary vaccines that help him develop resilience to face future life challenges.
Let’s look at two crucial ways that you can support this process. It’s first critical to encourage your child’s exposure to difficulties, setbacks, and perceived unfairness common in sport. When you do this, you provide her with the required opportunities for development, growth, and resilience building. It turns out that the moderate stress that she encounters in these situations is a requirement for appropriate brain development, just like exercise is for physical and brain development, and health challenges are for immune development.
In small doses, stress—the type faced in difficult sport situations—causes the the brain’s basic building blocks, neurons, to break down but then rebuild more strongly. This makes our brain more resilient to face future stress. Neuroscientists call this phenomenon “stress inoculation.” Assuming it’s not too severe or prolonged, our brains become stronger as a result of stress, making it a necessity for growth. So, if you can encourage your child’s exposure to sport stresses, you are helping to build his brain’s ability to overcome adversity and develop resilience. But this is not easy to do.
The problem with over-protection
It’s natural for you to have a strong inclination to be very protective of your child, but when parents are overprotective regarding difficult sport experiences, children are robbed of opportunities to develop resilience.
Sport is the perfect context to intentionally promote the moderate, short-term stressful experiences that will allow your child to function better in the future even though he, and you, may feel worse during the adverse experience.
Also, while exposing your child to sport stress is important, just as important is how you then respond to her stressful experience. In response to perceived unfairness or difficulties common in sport, it is vital to encourage her perception of having personal control over outcomes.
This means encouraging your child to focus on controllable factors internal to him, such as hard work and discipline in overcoming difficulties, rather than focusing on external factors such as selection or luck.
If you can view difficulties—such as perceived unfairnesses, poor decisions, and being left out of a desired team—as an opportunity to grow, your child will receive the message that he can affect future outcomes in his life. Communicate to your child that his own actions will determine his long-term fate, not factors external to him.
The problem with focusing on external factors
If, however, you take actions such as complaining or trying to influence decisions, you promote a victim mentality and your child will likely internalize the message that she does not control outcomes, which encourages helplessness. This is an innate human response that arises when we believe that we don’t have control over life outcomes.
By encouraging your child’s exposure to “sport stress,” and communicating personal control in response, you are effectively vaccinating him to the challenges he will face throughout life.
Anthony Ross is a sports psychologist and former professional tennis player who competed at Wimbledon. Reprinted with permission from mentaltoughnesstrainer.com