Dear David Coleman: How do I help my son to build resilience for competitive rugby?

Q My son is 14 and is part of a rugby development squad. This is his fourth year on the squad. In his first match this season he played very well and was told this.

My son was delighted with this feedback and his confidence was high. Since this first game, however, he goes to the matches but may only get five minutes at the end. We are confused as the positive feedback he gets from the coach does not match the actions of being sidelined. How can I help him deal with the rejection and confusion and support him to develop the resilience he will need to play the sport he loves?

A Competitive sport can be harsh. Being sidelined can be very disheartening. Perhaps the fact that your son has already had a lot of success in being on the development squad for four years may intensify the disappointment of not then getting a regular start on the team.

It is good that you are focusing on his resilience, since resilience is all about our ability to cope with adversity and our willingness to strive on, even in the face of suffering and challenge. Resilience is not something that can be taught, but rather is something to develop through experience in life.

I wonder if your son does feel rejected and confused? Is there a possibility that he feels hurt and disappointed? Perhaps four years of being part of an elite squad may have left him with very different expectations than a 14-year-old who had just made it onto the development squad for the first time and who may be delighted to be making the match-day 23. Your son’s expectations could be significantly colouring his experience of being substitute.

Your son, therefore, may need to take a different perspective to allow him to shift into a more positive frame of mind about his current circumstance. To do that he may need your help to properly understand his feelings about what is happening. I notice that you include yourself in being confused, and so you may need to process your own feelings about what you see happening to your son, before trying to help him process his.

Essentially, your son needs to decide what he is going to do with the disappointment of being sidelined. He can either let it drive negativity, like a sense of injustice or an anger at the ‘system’ or the coaching team, or he can use it to motivate himself positively to work harder in training sessions and prove his skill and his worth.

As in most sports, by the time children reach their mid-teens, they may have already specialised into playing in a particular position. Rugby certainly has specialist roles and so it may be that he is competing for a place with a very small pool of other players. Perhaps talking to the coaching team about what specific expectations they have of your son will help to clarify exactly what he needs to do to thrive at this high level of competition.

Playing at an elite level is challenging as, even though the rewards are great, the risks in terms of disappointment are also great.

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