High school athletes across the country are getting ready to try out for fall sports teams.  Whether it’s football, field hockey, soccer, or golf, the disappointment of not making a team can be traumatic.  For young athletes who have played a sport year-round from a very young age, being part of a team has become part of their identity.  Suddenly giving that up can take a little getting used to—for both the athlete and his/her parents.In decades past, earning a roster spot was much less competitive.  But in this generation of single sport specialization and elite training opportunities, high school teams have become increasingly competitive and making the roster a long shot at best, particularly for rising freshmen.  What do you do when your son/daughter gets cut?

Give them time to absorb what has happened. 

You may be ready to talk about it, but they might not be. Early on, avoid trying to tell them how they should feel or trying to talk them out of their situation. Empathize with them and appreciate their sense of disappointment, anger, sadness, hurt, and whatever else they might be feeling. Allow them to feel however they feel without passing judgment.  Let them know you’re there for them. It’s perfectly fine to tell them you’re also experiencing disappointment about the situation, and it hurts you to see them upset.  But make sure they understand you are not disappointed in them. Not being on a sports team does not make them a failure. Reinforce that they are still valuable, talented, and much loved regardless of whether they made the team or not.  Playing a sport is just something they do, not who they are.

Be “real” with your child

Don’t gloss over or deny the hurt and loss involved in being cut from the team. Really listen to your child and to try to get a sense of their experience and what they’re feeling. Don’t attempt to rush in and rescue them or minimize the disappointment and anger they’re experiencing. And please don’t blame them or other people (coaches, evaluators, trainers, other kids who DID make the team). This can create a whirlwind of conflicting emotions and just make the situation worse.

Help them find the silver lining. 

After validating their feelings and allowing your child time to absorb the initial shock, you can slowly progress toward discussing a few of the positive aspects of the situation.  Your child may have a difficult time finding them, but remind them that it took courage to try out for the team in the first place.  They now have an opportunity to pursue other interests—drama, music, yearbook, etc.  To help them recognize that life goes on, it is useful to direct them toward new activities and maybe even alternate sports, particularly if they still crave the team environment.  This can be a good thing.  Sometimes they find a talent they didn’t know they had—like the girl who gets cut from the soccer team only to become a cross country superstar.  And they will find they can still have an active and fulfilling life even if they aren’t on the team. They may even be pleasantly surprised by how much time and energy not having daily practices and weekly games saves them.  This is time and energy that can be used in other healthy ways—ensuring academic success, joining a club, and pursuing volunteer opportunities that will help them shine on college applications.

Use it as a teachable moment. 

Getting cut is painful, but it can lead to meaningful learning and growth. Life is filled with inevitable setbacks:  not getting accepted to your first-choice college; and not being offered the job we desire or the promotion we think we deserve. Developing the ability to handle and accept things when they don’t go our way is a necessary life skill. Learning to pick yourself up after being knocked down, creating a new plan of action, and moving forward is one of the most important life lessons we can learn.

Find them professional help if necessary.

If getting cut results in depressed behavior and social withdrawal that lasts for more than two weeks, or you see other significant personality changes, such as difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, irritability, loss of appetite or other unusual behavior, it’s important to consider making an appointment with a counselor who can help assess the situation and get your teen back on track before the problem escalates.