Any preschool playground will prove that kids are hardwired for competition. But the games kids engage in also prove that they’re not particularly great at losing, no matter how arbitrary the loss. That’s why it’s incumbent upon parents to raise children who approach competition with healthy attitudes. Because competition is a constant in life, from t-ball practice to the boardroom. Happily, lessons in losing can start at a very early age. Often even before a child can verbally communicate.
“Kids are going to lose a lot in their lives,” says Dr. Jim Taylor, sports psychologist and author of Train Your Mind for Athletic Success. “People don’t like ungracious losers, which can hurt future relationships in sports and in life.”
Taylor, whose work includes consulting stints with the U.S. and Japanese ski teams says some children are born naturally competitive. However, unsurprisingly, much of a child’s reaction to winning and losing is a reflection of how parents behave in competitive situations.
“Parents need to look in the mirror and see how they react to losing, or to their kids losing. Do they get really upset? If they send that message to their kids, their kids are going to adopt that,” says Taylor. “Kids are ungracious losers when losing becomes too important to them. It becomes an attack on them.”
It seems easy: Teach a kid to be a good sport by being a good sport. Show them that having fun is the most important part of any competition at a young age. And sure, most parents aren’t the braying dad screaming at the ref or the volatile stage mom demanding her daughter gets more lines. But even subtle acts, like a parent getting riled up and spiteful when their favorite football team loses, can show a child the wrong way to lose.
“Don’t ever act in a way you don’t want your kids to become,” Taylor asserts.
From there, Taylor says, the work becomes far more proactive. “Parents need to be very conscious and deliberate, first of all about how they feel about their kids losing and what messages they’re sending,” he says. Because the fact is that competition is about relationships. Parents should stress to a kid that an opponent is there to make them better and push them on. A good opponent is a person who motivates a kid to reach their potential. So in a way, they are an ally more than an enemy.
“But also, just keep it in perspective,” Taylor says. He notes that parents should always rely on the power of a shrug. “‘So what, you lost. You’re going to lose a lot. That’s not why you’re out there. You’re out there to have fun and do the best you can.’”
But for many parents, that shrug should be internalized. Taylor points to a study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that found that 26 percent of parents of high school athletes believed their children would go on to become professionals and Olympians. “The actual number is many zeros to the right of the decimal point,” he says.
In reality, Taylor says, advanced competitive sports shouldn’t even enter a child’s experience until pre-teen years, and 70 percent of school athletes drop out due to the stress and lack of fun. The system creates heightened competition, which in adolescents can result in heightened reactions to victory as well as defeat.
In a perfect world, Taylor says, all competitions should be fun, learning experiences — where parents take opportunities to teach the value of losing as well as the way to be a gracious winner. With patience and self-reflection, parents can equip their children to enjoy both winning and losing, and to handle both with a degree of humility.