If you have a naturally competitive child, one who must finish first, you know how tricky losing can be. Whether it’s a friendly game of backyard ball or a board game with family, how to be a good sport can be a hard thing to teach.
Before turning to team sports to help teach sportsmanship, consider your child’s age. Gail Masse, occupational therapist with Sylvania Special Needs Preschool, says that research indicates that team sports are generally geared for children ages 6 and older.
Preschoolers may be naturally competitive, but “if children are signed up before t hey are physically and emotionally able to manage the demands of team sports, the experience may leave all parties frustrated, and can turn the child off from the activity,” Masse explains.
If you have a Type-A, perfectionist child, the very idea of losing may be so intimidating that he avoids any task he can’t do impeccably. What can parents do to help kids learn how to face a daunting challenge and lose graciously?
Mentally preparing your child before a game can be helpful. If your child knows that “Go Fish” is a game of chance or that you only have three attempts to swing at the ball in baseball, he may be less surprised when he has to draw another card or he’s out after three strikes. It can also help remove a sense of unfairness or wrongdoing.
Learning to lose
Chris Platz, wellness director at Sylvania YMCA/JCC and mother of nine children ranging from age 6 to 22, adds, “Starting at an early age, it’s important to allow kids to lose when playing simple board games. Kids will inevitably get mad when they lose, but I try to have them look ahead to the next game.”
“If it’s a game of chance, I will usually encourage them to play another round. If it’s a game of strategy, I ask them what they could do differently next time. We learn best from our failures,” Platz continues.
What about those instances when a tantrum ensues and the child cannot hear our wise, thoughtful words?
Platz offers gentle and simple advice: “I typically advocate letting a child work through his or her feelings.”
Masse echoes this sentiment: “I think generally parents [have] to learn not to take it personally when their child gets angry about losing. It’s just an emotion that should be validated. ‘I can tell you are (sad, mad, or angry) about not winning the game today. Maybe you’ll win another time, just not today and [that’s] okay.’”
How to be a good at winning
It’s not only about teaching our kids how to lose; we must also teach them how to graciously win. Running around excitedly and screaming, “I won! I won!” won’t earn your child any friends, but it’s difficult to temper a child’s sincere pride and elation.
“Empathy is key,” Platz explains. “I always ask how my child would feel if the other team members acted like he/she was acting. I also stress that he/she will be most successful with the help of teammates. A goal with an assist is way cooler than one on your own.”
Even though it can be hard to see our children lose and endure feelings of defeat, it’s important to allow them to fail. After all, that’s real life. We are not all winners all of the time.
Instead, focus on other aspects besides triumph. Praise children for their teamwork, effort, dedication, support of others and perseverance. Those traits are more important than scoring points in a game that, after all, means very little in the grand scheme of things.