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Values And Sports - Part II: Learning To Lose

Although many coaches emphasize "good sportsmanship" sometimes the competitive nature of sports overcomes what could be a valuable lesson for children about how to lose as well as how to win. One mother said to me "My son is such a sore loser when his team doesn't win. I understand that it's partially developmental, but I'm tired of it. It takes all the fun out of playing for him, and all the fun out of watching for me." Competitiveness -- the desire to win or be the "best" -- is indeed developmental, and most parents begin to notice it in their children by three or four years of age.

For toddlers, who don't engage in team sports, being a "bad sport" is semi-excusable, given that part of their bad sportsmanship is simply due to inexperience. When a toddler throws a fit because he didn't "win" at Candyland, parents can begin to pave the road for the future by simply teaching the child what behavior they would like to see. A father told me that when he and his four year old play a game, he reviews the "rules of winning and losing" at the beginning. He'd say "Let's remember what happens when you win a game. You say `good game, thanks for playing.' If you lose, you shake my hand and say `good game, would you like to play again?'" Although what you teach a toddler to say when they win or lose can be based upon your own family's preferences, working with the learning process at this level can make competition easier for children when they reach elementary school and beyond. Good sportsmanship is still external at this point, but learning the appropriate behaviors will eventually help children internalize the values behind them. By the time a child reaches elementary school, he or she is ready to learn how to handle their feelings about winning and losing as well as learn appropriate behavior in both on and off the field.

The first way that we can teach older children how to handle competition is by role modeling appropriate behavior. Many parents get so caught up in the competition themselves, they may fail to realize that their yelling and screaming at an umpire or referee sends a clear message to their children that winning is more important than how we behave towards others. Other parents scream at their children as well. Unfortunately, the message for the child is that winning is more important than they are. Children whose performance is judged by their parents in this way may become fiercely competitive and exhibit poor sportsmanship upon losing because they perceive that the love of their parents is on the line every time they lose. Even a disappointed look on a parent's face speaks volumes, and can ruin the pleasurable aspects of playing team sports for children.

Parents can help children in this regard by being aware of their own behavior and controlling themselves at games and practices. That doesn't mean, however, that parents shouldn't be enthusiastic when their child's team wins, or when their child makes a particularly good play. "Good game," "you made a great play out there," "the team played well today," -- all of these are appropriate remarks, which can show a child you're proud of him or her. In addition, focusing on the times that your child handles things appropriately can also be useful. For example, "I noticed that you really took it in stride when the other team scored. You didn't let it throw you. Good work," lets a child know that you're impressed more with how he plays the game - fairly, with enthusiasm, as a team player, etc. - than whether the team wins or even scores.

Even with the most ideal modeling on the part of the parent, however, children are likely to have their own intense feelings about winning, playing well, losing, and more. Therefore, it's also important for parents to be aware of how their child is feeling, whether in the heat of competition or after the game is over. Poor sportsmanship should be viewed by parents as the child's inappropriate expression of feelings. If you help your child handle his or her feelings first, and then you teach how to behave when you win or lose, similar to the way you'd teach your toddler, you're more likely to be effective in turning a sore loser into a good loser. One boy, when his team lost by a very small margin to the team that was in second place, flew into a rage, kicking dirt at the other team's members and screaming that they were cheaters. The mother pulled him aside and, recognizing that his disappointment was immense, said "It is so hard to lose. You guys worked really hard this year, and I can just see disappointment written all over your face." This simple sentence served to open the door of communication for her son, and he ranted and raved about how much he hated the other team. Mom listened, and although the temptation was for her to either placate her son by telling him that she was sure they'd have better luck next time, or reprimand him for his strong and uncensored language, she held her tongue and simply listened. More than anything, when a child feels the loss of something that they wanted as badly as being the number one team, the child needs to know that there's a listening ear - someone who understands. Once the child feels understood by Mom or Dad, only then can the correct losing conduct be taught. Later that evening, as her son was getting ready for bed, Mom was able to discuss her values about being a good loser and brainstorm with him about what other behavior he might engage in the next time.