Managing Frustration and Building Sports Skills

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson


Our six-year-old son wants to do everything perfectly right away, especially sports. He watches professional sports on TV and thinks he should be able to shoot baskets, hit the baseball, ski or skate just like the pros. When he tries and fails, he gets terribly upset and cries and slams things around. He actually is well-coordinated for his age, but lacks the patience or frustration tolerance to take things slowly. Where can we start to help him develop these qualities?

Your question triggers childhood memories for me. My parents still tease me about the way I would watch performers or athletes on TV and then proudly proclaim, "I can do that!" One time after watching trapeze artists on a circus show, I eagerly tried one of their stunts on the trapeze swing at our neighborhood park. Alas, I landed flat on my face in the dirt--a quick and painful lesson in the importance of taking time to learn! (Not that I ever learned to be a trapeze artist, mind you, but you get the point.)

Since your son's not likely to experience such an instant lesson, here are some steps you can take to help him learn to manage his frustration and build his sports skills, one step at a time:

*Pick one or two of your son's favorite sports and help him break the complex skills down into "chewable chunks." For example, practice tossing and catching a baseball, hitting the ball off a T-ball stand (much easier than hitting a moving ball), dribbling a basketball, or throwing the basketball into a large trash can or at a spot on the garage wall. Encourage him in each step along the way and help him work his way slowly toward his larger goals.

*Sometimes, children with a low frustration tolerance do better practicing skills with someone other than a parent. So consider arranging for a family friend or an older boy in the neighborhood to take your son out for a game of catch once in a while.

*As an alternative to watching professional sports, take your son to a pee wee hockey game or a park and rec T-ball or basketball game. Let him see other children in the early learning stages of the games and remind your son that's where the pros started, too.

*When he's old enough, sign your son up for low-key sports activities in your community. Make sure there are sensitive, supportive coaches who emphasize sportsmanship rather than scoring or winning. Most programs face a shortage of parent volunteers, so perhaps you will become one of those sensitive coaches yourself.

*Knowing that some frustration is almost inevitable in sports (something I'm reminded of every time I play golf), teach your son ways to manage his feelings. For example, when he starts to feel frustrated, encourage him to take 3 deep breaths and count to 10.

*Focus your positive attention on the times your son handles frustration well. Assure him that you understand how hard it is to keep trying something that doesn't come easily, and tell him you're proud of the mature way he is learning to calm himself and continue to work on his skills.

*Finally, be aware that your son will learn from your example. Let him see you struggling with new skills and handling your own frustration well. Laugh at your own missed shots or slips on the ice and go back and try, try again, just as you hope he will.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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