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The Art of Raising a Humble Winner and Gracious Loser

“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose.” — Wilma Rudolph, Olympic champion

We all love to win—whether it’s in a board game, sport, or even a race with your sibling. It can make us feel good and push us to give our best effort, but it can also lead to hurt feelings when we don’t win or, worse, treat the “loser” poorly when we do win.

It’s not uncommon for children—and adults—to struggle with their feelings around losing and winning. You might notice your child:

  • Have a meltdown if her team loses on the ball field.
  • Unwilling to acknowledge improvements in their skills in the face of losing, or want to give up.
  • Brag too much if their team won.
  • Refuse to participate in anything that they don’t think they can win.

If any or all of these are true for your child, they may have what is sometimes known as “sore loser syndrome.”

There are steps you can take to prevent your child from being overwhelmed by losing, as well as ways to help them if they do react strongly to the pressure to win.

Start early

As parents, we all let our children win at family games every now and then. But don’t do it every time! It’s okay for your child to lose at Go Fish occasionally. Learning to lose and manage the feelings that come with it will help your child deal with the inevitable losses they will experience throughout their childhood and their lives.

You might say something like, “We’re a learning family. We all learn new things. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. We take turns winning and losing. Today, it was your brother’s turn to win. Maybe it will be your turn to win tomorrow.”

Affirm feelings

“In life, winning and losing will both happen. What is never acceptable is quitting.” — Magic Johnson, basketball player

Don’t brush aside your child’s feelings of disappointment or sadness with expressions like “It’s just a game.”

  • Let them know that how they feel is okay: “You tried hard to hit the ball. It can be frustrating when you try hard and can’t make it work the way you want to.” Focus on what they are learning, and help them notice and acknowledge their improvement.
  • Give your child support for dealing effectively with feelings: “You drew a picture about feeling sad about not winning today’s game. That is a wonderful way to express your feelings.”

Learning from loss

Sometimes losing can create learning moments for kids. Use the powerful word “yet.” You haven’t won “yet.” Is there something your child could do differently next time? Does the skill need more practice? Did your child try to rush through the game without listening to the instructions? With your child, come up with solutions to help the game go more smoothly.

Emphasize the positive

Let your child know that we all have different skills for different things: “You didn’t hit the ball this game, but you swung at the ball! One thing you did do well was catch the ball twice when you were in the field. You really know how to catch the ball.”

Make sure to let your child know you recognize small successes, especially with young children: “You made it to the top of the play structure. Way to go!” “You knew exactly which card to ask for” (when playing Go Fish).

Reframe winning and losing

“It’s not about winning or losing a competition, it’s about beating the doubt from within yourself and knowing at the end of each day you are one step closer to your goals.” — Jonathon Horton, gymnast

Instead of talking about “winning” and “losing” in black and white terms, try focusing on the process. Use words like:

  • Opportunity
  • Growth
  • Learning
  • Effort
  • Working Hard
  • Enjoyment
  • Fun

If your child is hesitant to participate because they can’t “win” or “be the best,” encourage them to participate in activities they really enjoy.

  • Give them support for working hard or being willing to participate, even if they are not “the best.”
  • Emphasize enjoyment: “You sure laughed a lot when we were playing cards.”
  • Emphasize effort: “I can see how hard you were trying to hit that ball. You were really watching carefully.”

How do you manage your feelings?

How do you deal with loss and disappointment? If you realize you are having a hard time dealing with loss, take the opportunity to make some changes. Not only will you benefit, but your child will also benefit from seeing effective ways to deal with losing. When your child sees you coping with hard feelings, they learn how to cope with their feelings.

Walk your child through your process when you are trying something new. When you make a mistake, let them see you deal with it and try again. Learn to do something new together. Let them see you struggle with a new skill or game, and lose gracefully.

At the end of a day, it’s just a game

“Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.” — Michael Jordan, basketball player

Start practicing with your child early and they’ll see that losing can be disappointing, but no one wins all the time and that’s OK!

If your child is starting to have “sore loser syndrome,” affirm their feelings of disappointment when losing, but also provide them with perspective. Remind them they haven’t won “yet”, they can improve, no one can be the best at everything, and sometimes having fun makes participating worthwhile. And, remember to check in with yourself about how you react to winning and losing too!

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com). 

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