Values And Sports - Part III: Learning To Win

In Part II we explored the concept of teaching our children to be good losers when involved with individual or team sports. But what about being a good winner? Good sportsmanship is, after all, not just about what you do when you lose, but how you handle yourself when you win. In truth, this can be as big a challenge as teaching our children to be good losers.

Let's begin with what winning means. What makes a person a winner? I recently had the opportunity to participate with my daughter in the 5K Race for the Rainforest, sponsored by the Road Runner's Club here in NYC. Prior to the 5K, the Road Runners had set up "mini-runs" for younger children. I watched as approximately 20 two year olds lined up to "race" 25 yards to the finish line. The "race" began. Some of the children walked, bearing puzzled looks on their little faces. Some were carried by parents. Some tore down the road at great speed, but upon discovering that Mom or Dad wasn't behind them, turned around and ran back to the starting line. And one two year old crossed the finish line first. Who won? According to the Road Runner's Club, they all did. Each child received a green ribbon for participating, and the child who crossed the finish line last was cheered even more loudly than the one who finished first. Later, my 9 1/2 year old and I participated in the 5K, along with approximately 3,000 other people - most of them adults. Did we finish first? Of course not. Were we winners? Here's what my daughter said: "Yeah! Definitely, because even though we didn't come in first place, you don't have to come in first place to be a winner. You're a winner when you try your hardest. Everyone's a winner who completes the race."

Do all children have that attitude about what makes them a winner? Unfortunately not. But why? How and when do our children form their definition of what being a winner means? The truth is that at least in NYC our kids learn about competition (and hence about winning) at a very young age. Think for a moment about the whole preschool acceptance process. Our children are "interviewed" to determine where they'll be "accepted." Many parents go to great lengths to coach their children and/or pull strings to get them into a particular school. Later, our children are tested to determine admission into private schools or "gifted" programs. A child's score suddenly becomes important in terms of beating the competition. Parents are dying to know that their child is somehow separate from the "pack," that he or she stands out in some way, that their child is, if not the best, at least among the best. So at a very young age, before sports even come into the picture, NYC children are learning that winning, or beating the competition, is extremely important to their parents. I'm reminded of an example in the news where a mother made plans to murder her daughter's competition for cheerleader. While most parents wouldn't go that far, there's no question that when parents label their children ("gifted," "talented,"), push their children ("why didn't you get a better grade?") and focus on the product of their children's efforts (winning the game, getting "accepted" into a school, making an "A") they're teaching their children something about being a winner. They may even be teaching that winning is the most important thing no matter what the cost. Later, these values are reinforced by coaches, schools, team members. The problem is that if winning means coming in first in a race, being on the team that has the highest score, or beating your opponent, then the percentages aren't stacked in our children's favor - most of the time, they'll wind up feeling like "losers." This clearly undermines our children's self-esteem.

A child's sense of self comes from feeling a sense of mastery over something. That sense of mastery can be present when a child simply makes contact with a ball, or runs in a race for a good cause, or plays a game well. It is these things that give the child a feeling of "I did it!" which is far more important than "I came in first." Feeling like a winner also comes from respecting and valuing your competition, from working well as a member of a team, from doing your best whatever that may be.

We're living in a time where our children are barraged with values from a society which does not have our children's best interests at heart. It is also a time when society, peer pressure, and the media have a far greater influence over our children than ever before. Commercials and television programs, for example, frequently convey to our children that they must be the best. Furthermore, that to "be" the best, they must not only come in first, but they must buy certain things, they must look a certain way, they must be thinner, or richer, or sexier. There's absolutely no emphasis on doing their best. This is an ever increasing threat to our children's self-esteem - to that little voice inside of them that says "you're a winner" even if they came in second, or twelfth, or last in a race. Even if their team loses, or they don't make cheerleader. We are living in a time when we as parents need to take greater control over the values that are being instilled in our children. This means not buying into the same values that our society holds about winning at all costs. Instead, we must seek to build our children's self-esteem by helping them feel like winners all the time - not just when the score at the end of a ball game or when they come in first labels them "winner." If we fail to emphasize that doing your best is more important than being the best, we will lose our children to an increasingly materialistic and competitive society. And it's the society that will come out on top, not our children.