When kids play a sport, one of the things they love most is winning. It’s fun. They did well, they know it, and everyone around them is happy about it. But winning isn’t the only thing. It may not even be the most valuable lesson in youth sports.
As pointed out in this article in the Motherlode blog on the New York Times website, losing provides hugely valuable lessons to children in sports. It’s a lesson in real life, where we can’t all win.
The article reminded me of one of the teams my son’s soccer team played against last fall. This was an under 8 years old team, so they were kids well away from even high school level competitions. The team my son’s team was playing against was probably the best in the league – hard to say exactly as official standings and scores aren’t kept at that level, but the coaches always know, and word gets around. My son’s team wasn’t bad, but not at the other team’s level.
Still, his team managed to get the score tied 2-2 for a large part of the game, which was clearly driving the other coach up the wall. She was screaming at her team to score a point for her. The way she was yelling at the kids was so bad that the parents of the kids on our team started to yell for the kids to just have fun. The kids on the other team played a pretty rough game too, with an unusual amount of pushing for the age range.
The other team did finally break the tie in the last minutes of the game, which really saddened the kids on my son’s team. After all, they had nearly tied their toughest game ever; losing was hard.
As I pointed out to my son after the game, his team may have lost, but they probably enjoyed the game far more than the other team. Their coach didn’t yell at them or expect a win every time. He encouraged them to work on their skills as individuals and as a team. Winning was great, but it wasn’t the only thing, and losing the game was never treated as a bad thing.
I don’t think children need to be taught that winning is the most important thing. It’s fun, but in most places in life we can’t all win. We aren’t all going to get the promotion. We aren’t all going to make the team. We aren’t all going to get so much as the job interview, no matter how well we match the job description. That’s real life.
Losing in youth sports teaches kids how to cope when things don’t go their way, so long as coaches and parents encourage them to take it gracefully. You take the lesson from the loss and figure out what you could do better and use that for the future. You’re gracious to the winners.
Winning too much doesn’t teach kids how to come back from losing. There’s a greater thrill, I suspect, to winning after a series of losses, than there is to winning every game. When you win after losing, you know you’ve done better. Do nothing but win, and you risk becoming overconfident. There may be less motivation to improve your skills because you’re already doing better than others, making it all the more surprising when the kid who had to work harder for those same skills surges ahead after much effort.
The child who learns how to lose gracefully and recover after is more likely to deal well with the challenges life throws at us all. They’ve had practice in the little things, so that when bigger things don’t go their way, they’re ready to cope.