By Sam Weinman
The first thing you should know about helping your kids to learn to lose is that it’s still going to be difficult for them. They wouldn’t be human otherwise. If we’re talking about loss, or setbacks, or whatever the word is you want to use, the universal ingredient is disappointment, and everyone is entitled to their momentary period of wallowing.
I spent two years researching and writing a book on the topic of losing, and my two sons are still prone to slammed hockey sticks and tears in the locker room. The difference now is they have a better understanding that most losses are fleeting. Even better, somewhere in the back of their 11- and nine-year old brains is the abstract notion that the experience may even be good for them.
In consulting with psychologists and coaches, as well as a selection of athletes and celebrities who endured notable losses, this last part proved to be the foundation of my book — that losing has very real, very tangible benefits, both in how it shapes our character and in the way it helps us identify areas of weakness that need addressing. As a parent, I suspect this all makes sense to you. If you make three fielding errors in a baseball game, that’s a signal you need infield practice. If you didn’t get the big account at work because your presentation was a mess, that’s a hint you probably need to be better prepared.
Surely all of us can point to setbacks in our lives that proved to be instructive. But at least in the immediate outset, kids have a harder time seeing the upside. Allow me to offer some advice on how to help your kid deal with a loss.
Don’t minimize the pain.
Much as we are blessed with the broader worldview that the fate of mankind does not hinge on a flag football game, your child has a hard time seeing that right now. Before you get anywhere else, you need to meet them where they are. And right now, all they know is it sucks. However trivial the setback might seem, your first move is to hear them out.
Spin the story forward.
After a recommended cooling-off period in which you’ve tended to any immediate wounds, your next objective is to shift focus from what was to what will be. With kids, there is always a next game or a next practice, and even if there isn’t, there is always a next season. The most difficult part of losing is in harping on an outcome you can no longer control. The more you can shift attention toward something still in front of you, the quicker you can move on to it.
Even if the objective is to move forward, there’s still an opportunity for your child to reflect on areas where they could have done better. This is a complicated concept for young kids, and any hope of eliciting constructive answers likely depends on your tone. With my kids at least, a gentle line of questioning is a lot more effective than a series of pointed criticisms. In other words, it needs to come from them. If your child lost a tennis match because he can’t hit a backhand, ask him where he thinks he needs the most practice instead of telling him that his backhand is weak.
Redefine winning and losing.
The most effective counter to losing might actually be pre-emptive. Before your child even embarks on a game, stress to them goals that have nothing to do with winning and have more to do with a “process.” Again, think about the things they can control. They can’t guarantee they’ll score a goal, but they can vow to be in the right position and to always hustle. Studies have shown that kids who are praised for effort as opposed to results or innate talents tend to be more adaptive and more willing to embrace challenge. It also allows them to feel successful even when the scoreboard says otherwise. By the way, this is not a concept reserved for kids. It’s also an effective approach at the highest level of sports. “The people who are really successful, they’re not thinking about winning and losing,” says leading sports psychiatrist Dr. Michael Lardon, who works with a number of professional athletes. “They’re thinking about the execution of what they can do.”
Far more impressive than when your kid wins a big game is when he or she handles disappointment well. Don’t let these moments go unacknowledged. In the same way it’s important to praise effort more than results, you want to make your child aware of their ability to weather difficult situations effectively. This is a gift that keeps on giving. If your kids know they can handle a tough outcome once, they know they can do it again.
Sam Weinman is the author of Win At Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead To Our Greatest Gains. He is also the Digital Editor of GolfDigest.com, where, during his tenure, the website has grown to boast the largest digital audience in golf and has been nominated for several National Magazine Awards. Prior to that, he was the lead hockey and golf writer for The Journal News and LoHud.com, during which time he launched the popular hockey blog, “Rangers Report.” For more than a decade, Sam’s work has regularly appeared in Gannett newspapers around the country, including USA Today, and he has contributed to Golf World, Yahoo! Sports, ESPN the Magazine, and Sports Illustrated. He is the recipient of several national writing awards for his coverage of the PGA Tour and the National Hockey League. He lives with his wife and two boys in Rye, NY, where he coaches multiple youth sports teams.