Lessons in Losing
By Karen Finucan Clarkson
“Losing triggers strong emotional reactions, namely disappointment and frustration,” but it also sets the stage for incredible gains, says David R. McDuff, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and owner of MD Sports Performance in Ellicott City. “Parents need to appreciate the importance, from a learning point of view, of losing. The biggest lessons often come from a loss or series of losses.”
“Losing builds character more than winning does,” says Robert Price, a sports psychology consultant and owner of Elite Minds in North Potomac. “Society, however, doesn’t value failure or really understand the role losing plays in a child’s growth and development.”
Life is full of competition, whether it’s Chutes and Ladders in preschool or lacrosse in college, and being able to handle and learn from a loss is essential to eventual success. What is key, according to Price, is teaching children to identify those aspects of the competition they cannot control-the roll of the dice or the call of a referee-and then focus on those things within their reach.
“Getting out of the trap of winning and results-oriented play, which often stifle improvement, allows a child to focus on how he practices and plays,” says McDuff. And it often increases a child’s enjoyment of the game. By “focusing on winning and results, there’s always pressure. A child may come to dislike practice and competition even though he may love the sport.”
The Concept of Losing
Preschool is an ideal time to expose children to the concept of losing. “When we play a game with our kids, it’s not to win or lose but to teach them something-to count, to read, to take turns,” says Price. There will, however, be a winner. If the focus is on the process-you tell your child that “he has three pieces he’s in charge of and needs to make decisions about”-then “letting him win is OK,” Price says, especially if the parent is a gracious loser, modeling effective ways to deal with disappointment. “Sometimes it’s okay to beat your kid so that he knows what losing feels like and experiences it in the comfort of his own home. Better there for the first time than in public.”
Learning From a Loss
It is not until middle school, when a child is around 12 years old, that he is developmentally capable of learning from and improving as the result of a loss, agree McDuff and Price. “Losing forces a child and parent at all levels of competition to examine what it takes to play well and ultimately be successful as an individual or a team,” says McDuff.
“As a parent, try to get your kid to focus on the process and set goals he can actually attain while out there performing,” says Price. “The goal isn’t winning but improving; it should be measurable, attainable and realistic.”
He offers the example of a center on a basketball team. “He can set some simple goals – eight rebounds, two blocked shots and 12 passes. …Accomplishing these goals will help him individually and his team.”
Goal setting also provides focus to the post-game conversation. Rather than sulking about losing, “he can talk about whether he was able to accomplish his goals-and if not, why,” says Price.
But hold off on that conversation for a bit, suggests McDuff. “Many children don’t like to talk much after a loss….But athletes, no matter what their age, appreciate a quiet hug or embrace from a parent.” The car ride home is a time for a child to decompress, not listen to a critical analysis of the game. “Wait. Be available. Your child will come to you after the emotions and disappointment subside a bit.”
Continuous Failure Can Be Demoralizing
While the occasional loss provides opportunities for improvement, continuous failure can be demoralizing. “These days there’s such early pressure to specialize in one sport and play at a high level,” says McDuff. “There’s a risk from pushing a child to too high a competitive level where they’re outmatched or get little or no playing time. I worry about burnout and the long-term effect on self-esteem.”
He tells the story of a high school senior preparing to play tennis in college. “I asked him what he was going to do over the summer. He said, ‘I guess I’ll play tennis, though I’d rather write and hang with my friends.’ I asked him to go back and look at videos and tell me when it was he lost his joy for playing.”
It was an eye opener, says McDuff. “‘At 10, 11, 12, 13, I was smiling when I competed,’ he told me. ‘But when I began travelling,’ he said, ‘I lost my smile.’”
Losing isn’t fun, and some children struggle with their emotions following a loss. A focus on process rather than results frees a child to be a good sport. “Good losers recognize that there are people or situations that are out of their control. They acknowledge that, and move on,” says Price. “By focusing on their goals-what they accomplished and what they could have done better-they often find it easier to congratulate someone on winning.”
The truth is, says Price, that society values winning. But, he notes, some of those winners credit losing with their success. “Michael Jordan has always talked about why it is important to fail, why he learned more through failing than he fell, he got back up. That’s a lesson any kid, even a 4-year-old, can understand.”
Jordan would concur. “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed,” the NBA All-Star has been quoted as saying.
Karen Finucan Clarkson is a Bethesda writer and the mother of three boys, ages 14-22.