Updated: Sep 30
Children can find it really hard to deal with losing at sports or failing at school. They do not like it! They can get disheartened and lose confidence in both studies, skills and sports from failing a test or a playing a bad game. In this blog, storyteller and father of 2, Jay Golden, talks about how he helped his son with his own difficulties, through finding an experience where he could meet his son in the middle.
Playing a tough game of baseball
A few years ago, my son Izzy was having a rough baseball game. He had yelled from the dugout at the Little League umpire. Later, he wanted to argue with us, his parents, about everything. Then he tripped up his sister leading her to fall over. “Go to your room!” I yelled, losing my cool.
After a few minutes of getting context, I realized my own anger wasn’t really helping the situation and went in and climbed up next to him on his bunk bed, where he sat, head in hands.
“Iz. How do you feel about today’s game?” I asked.
He looked up for a second. “It was terrible . . . We played terrible! I PLAYED TERRIBLE!”
When as a parent you don’t know the right way to respond at first
My heart dropped. What do I say to that? I got quiet for a moment and cleared out of my mind whatever I thought was supposed to happen, and freed myself of any self-judgment, guilt, or anger that I had. I knew if I just told him what I thought about the experience and gave my advice, it would go in one ear and out the other. I knew I needed a story, through which I could take him out of the current moment, and into another experience by way of distraction.. But which? I scanned my internal database of stories to remember when I had been in a similar situation, to meet his challenge with one of my own.
I recalled a moment of deep frustration when I played sports as a kid. But then I had to think for another long second to figure out where I would land the story to point him in a new direction.
Finding the perfect story for the moment
“Did I ever tell you about the worst game I ever played?” I said to my son. Even as I said this, I was buying a little time, thinking about just how to share a failure that still rolls over in my mind, decades later.
“What happened?” he asked, looking up.
“I was seventeen. On the high school basketball team. It was a big night, because after a long, long time, I was finally getting close to breaking into the starting lineup. But then, when I got in, I just made mistake after mistake. Missed an easy shot. A dumb foul. Threw the ball away. I was so frustrated, I even shoved a guy.”
“Really?” Izzy said, eyes getting big.
“Really. A very big guy. It got worse and worse. My dream of being a star was fading quickly, and after that game, I got benched.”
“Oh, yes. For days afterward, sitting at the end of the bench, I was steaming mad. But really, I felt like I wanted to cry. Finally, I couldn’t take any more, and I decided I would quit the very next day. But the next morning came, and I didn’t quit.”
“Why not?” my son asked.
“Because deep down inside, I knew that we had a very special team. And I wanted to be a part of it. So, instead of quitting, that morning I decided I had to put down my own dreams and put my energy into the team. So I started cheering more. I worked my butt off in practice, diving everywhere, playing crazy defense, working to help everyone get better. I still felt bad, but every time I’d feel sad about not playing, I’d refocus into the team. And do you know what happened?”
“What?” he asked, lifting up his head.
“We started to win. And I was hardly playing at all. We won the league, and then the county. It was like surfing a big wave. And I was able to enjoy it, to get out of the way and support the team.”
“And you won the state, too, right?” He said, his reddened eyes starting to brighten.
“Right, we eventually won the state championship. And I would roll in only at the end of games, when it was mostly decided. That was still hard! But every time I got frustrated, I put my focus back into the team.”
Stories can distract and give hope
He had forgotten about his frustration and was there with me, sitting on the sidelines in Oakland Arena at the state championship finals. Knowing I had him in that in-between space, I carefully worked to connect my journey to his.
“And that’s the chance that you have, whenever you feel bad about your play. Instead of yelling at the umpire, or even the other players, you can put your focus back into the team. Do you think you can do that?”
“I can,” he said, looking at me. He climbed down from the bunk as if he had forgotten all about his challenges with the game that day.
I sat there a moment, allowing myself to exhale for a moment and consider the subtle shift of direction that my vulnerability, and making use of my greatest trials, helped to offer. What else could I pull out to help him through his challenges?
Then I rejoined my team at the kitchen table.
Maybe you wish to teach your kids to see the world as you do. No matter the need of the particular moment, it’s good to cultivate a few losses and lessons stories that create connection, show a rough spot you’ve faced, and reveal some wisdom that will help your child re-orient to a new direction. I’m willing to bet that you have had many pivots in your life, many depths plunged, and many insights gathered. Each of these is worth considering for the challenges that your kid will face.
And though they may not be perfect, if you can draw them into that zone of their imagination, where they feel the story as you do, you’ll have a chance to guide them into a new way of seeing.
Jay Golden is the founder of the storytelling company Retellable, Jay coaches and trains founders, innovators, and social entrepreneurs to tell stories that unlock power and purpose. If you would like to read more about for more about using stories in life and leadership see Jay's book at https://retellable.com/read-retellable/