Why I Like It When My 8-year-old Loses at Sports

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My son, who’s in third grade, loves playing soccer. And while I’m under no delusions that he’s going to be a professional athlete, I want him to reap the benefits of team sports for as long as possible. That includes making great friends, developing a strong work ethic, understanding how to be a team player — and learning how to deal with disappointment.

Last weekend, his team lost and it was hard to watch, but after hearing my son’s rationale on the car ride home, I realized that he needed to experience what it was like to lose. He explained that the ref had made bad calls, the grass was too long, and the ball was flat. I stopped him and said, “Bud, the other team played really well today and you got beat. It wasn’t the ref’s fault or the grass’s fault or the ball’s fault. Your team lost, and it’s OK. It happens. You’re upset, and that’s OK, too. But life goes on.”

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I didn’t know what else to say, but I knew there was a greater lesson in there — and not just for kids who play competitive sports. When I volunteered at my son’s field day last spring, teachers didn’t keep score in any of the events, and there were no winners at the end of the day. When I asked the P.E. teacher what was up, she said, “Oh, kids these days don’t know how to lose. We’d have too many meltdowns if we kept score.”

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There are two issues here. Over the last twenty years or so, schools and recreational leagues nationwide have largely gone the “everyone gets a trophy” route, favoring cooperation over competition in P.E. classes. Simultaneously, there’s the professionalization of youth sports, whereby kids who display even a shred of talent specialize in one sport at a young age in the hopes of getting into the best colleges — ideally on scholarship. In that situation, winning becomes everything.

Experts agree that neither extreme is good for our kids, but no one has the perfect solution. Are we cheating our kids if we don’t expose them to winning and losing at an early age? And how can we really help our children learn from a loss? Trust me, it’s more fun to watch my son’s team win, but I’m glad they got to experience that pummeling. Here’s why:

Losing is a part of sports — and of life.

Winning should not be everything, but eventually kids have to understand that there is a difference between winning and losing. “In business, you either close a deal or you don’t — and if you don’t, you can’t just say, ‘Well, everybody tried hard, right?’” Jen Welter, a sports psychologist and the first female coach in the NFL, tells Yahoo Parenting. “How do you explain to a child the value of working hard, of pushing himself and sticking to a task, with no winning and losing components?” Not to mention humility, something my child (who fancies himself the next Lionel Messi) could certainly use a dose of every now and then.

Losing isn’t supposed to feel good — but it can be good for you.

If your child feels disappointed after a loss, let him. “Losing is supposed to be uncomfortable, and something that motivates you to work harder,” says Welter. What’s more, kids need to see the lessons in the loss: “When parents and coaches work together to frame losses as an opportunity for growth, improvement, and change, then it’s a win,” says Welter.

And remember, children can handle more than we think. “Kids are resilient, and if coached properly after a tough game or season, it should be a building block for future success,” Travis Copley, a Nashville-based youth baseball coach and former professional baseball player, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Losing has taught me to work harder and be a better leader and teammate. And in the ‘real’ world, that same mentality drives me to be a better husband, father, coach, and coworker.”

Losing gives us a chance to remind kids (and ourselves) why they’re playing.

Ask your kid why he’s playing the sport, what his goals are, and remind him that he committed to a team. “It will help your child gain a sense of self-control and foster increased self-motivation,” Brooke de Lench, executive director of MomsTEAM Youth Sports Safety Institute, tells Yahoo Parenting. And remember this, adds Copley: “Study after study shows that the No. 1 reason kids say they play sports is to have fun. I get caught up in my son’s games just like other parents, but we all need to do a better job of relaxing and enjoying watching our child play — with no pressure on the outcome.”

Losing and winning should feel normal.

“I always tell parents that if their tradition is to get ice cream after a game, don’t only make it about celebrating a win — go regardless,” says Welter. “We have to model the behavior we want our children to adopt so they see that life doesn’t stop when you lose.” On the flip side, winning offers lessons, too. “Keep your post-game discussions consistent — there are still areas to improve on after a win,” she says. And finally, if parents don’t overemphasize winning, kids will be less likely to overemphasize losing. “Kids at that age need to be taught to have fun and to love their teammates and be good sports,” she says, “not that winning or losing will define them.”

Losing can help kids focus on the effort, not the outcome.

“Success should be defined in terms of performance,” says de Lench. “Ask kids what they thought of the game and what plays they were proud of, then listen.” Adds Copley, “Every kid knows what the scoreboard says, so there’s no need to obsess about the outcome. Instead, we ask, ‘Did we give our maximum effort today?’ Then, at our next practice, we address the aspects that went wrong and work on those.” It’s also important to note that sometimes kids can give 110 percent and still lose. It happens in sports and in life, and kids should see the lessons in that, too.

Losing can be good for parents, too.

“I’ve found that parents get more upset about the outcome of games than kids do,” says Welter. So the issue for kids often isn’t whether or not they lose; it’s whether they feel the love and admiration of their parent or coach is contingent on the outcome. “The answer isn’t to say winning and losing don’t matter at all,” says Welter. “But there needs to be a happy medium, and we haven’t gotten there yet.”

(Photo: Erin Zammett Ruddy)

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