Teaching Your Kid To Lose Gracefully; Even When They Win

The summer months are amongst us, and that means team sports, activities, and other events are blossoming everywhere. In our neck of the woods, this usually includes various baseball seasons, soccer, the beginning of football practices, and the most important sport to our family – swimming.

Swimming has become a primary sport in our household secondary to our 8-year-old son excelling at it (and still enjoying it), with his 5-year-old brother close on his heals (or fins). Neither my wife nor I were proficient swimmers. Heck, I just learned this summer than my older sister was on swim team for some time; apparently I was too young to remember.

Now, before you go worrying about us “pushing our son too much into the sport,” I promise that we are letting him choose his own path in the activity. If you read my post on early sports specialization in kids, you would understand my reasoning why. However, I can’t help but notice how well he has done with it at his age. That success also comes with the expectation from HIM to be the best every time he hits the lane.

Let’s Go Back in Time First

Prior to our eldest getting into swimming, he attempted various other teams and activities. We played many different board games and card games with him from an early age. If you are a parent of younger kids (or those with older kids and haven’t erased these events from your memories yet), you will know that little kids struggle with losing. When things don’t go their way, the stress of it may lead to tantrums, yelling, trying to change rules, or all together quitting the game.

I have to be honest here. I have MANY memories of me acting this way in my youth. When we would visit my mom’s parents, we frequently played a card game called “Oh Heck.” I am pretty sure the name of it was adjusted for our virgin ears. I won’t get into the rules of the game; let’s just say I wasn’t very good at it.

I have one memory of being at their house, losing epically at the game, and half way through throwing a tantrum, quitting the game, and running to a spare bedroom. What was I searching for? Sympathy? Another chance to win? I don’t remember. What I do remember is hearing the grownups I left behind at the table laughing at me. Obviously, they were not going to give into my juvenile antics.

So how do we go about teaching kids to win (and lose) with humility and grace?

The Basics

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I think sometimes the biggest thing to teach our kids is the importance of working hard at something. That is honestly why I love swimming for our son. Yes, you can win races. However, the most important thing is competing against yourself, attempting to improve your previous best time.

Yet when our kids don’t win, they feel frustration. They EXPECT to win once they set their mind to it. When they don’t, their brain struggles with the stress of an alternate outcome. This then leads to tantrums and outbursts as they have little ability to respond in any other way.

One thing you can try to do as a parent is simply show your kids how to lose gracefully. When you play a game and YOU lose, act happy, tell them good job, hug them, and say you don’t mind losing because you loved playing the game with them. Then when they lose, you can also say things to them like “wasn’t it fun to play that game together? I love playing games with you.” Encourage the mind set that we can’t always determine the outcome of competition, but we can be accepting of the results when it is out of our control.

But What About When Our Kid WINS – But LOSES?

Our son is the swimmer in the white swim cap. Remember that.

Let me guess. That question confuses you, right? Let me break it down.

This last week our older son (8) had his end of summer swim championships. He swam in the 10 & under 100 IM, 8 & under 25 m breast stroke, 10 & under 100 yard medley, and 8 & under 100 yard Freestyle relay. So – two team events, two individual events.

He placed first in both team events and 2nd in the 100 IM (losing to an older more experienced swimmer). When the 25 meter breaststroke came around, he was ready. His main competition was another swimmer who had beat his preliminary time by over a second, so I was mentally preparing the dad talk on how good he did, how hard he tried, etc.

BUT! The race was close. They were neck and neck, and at the end it was difficult to see who had won. His coach, teammates, and his mom all thought he won the race. Super Mom even had the video of it showing him touching first! He was ecstatic!

However, later into the swim meet as times were being released, an anomaly was present. The timers had timed the other kid as swimming 0.1 seconds faster than our son, despite him having touched the wall first. For reference, the timers at these meets are volunteers on the side of the pool with stop watches. Times completely depend on when they push the button to start the timer and when they end it. It is very possible that timers start and stop watches with varying degrees of accuracy.

The difficult thing is that it is against the rules to accept video or photo evidence for the results of a race. Only time matters. Thus, despite our son WINNING the race, he actually was told he got SECOND place. His coach fought valiantly for him to be given the win, but sadly to no avail. He was crushed.

This led to about 36 hours of discussion off and on about the topic. His frustration, the unfairness, the expectations of being given a 1st place medal, etc. At first we recognized his feelings. We discussed how difficult it was for him and how we can understand his disappointment. I even offered to spray paint his silver medal gold once he received it (more in jest than seriousness, and luckily he didn’t take me up on that).

However, we continued to tell him how PROUD we were of him as his parents. We discussed how incredible he did all season long. We discussed how he accomplished his goal of making it to the swim finals and WINNING the 25 meter breaststroke. We discussed that the timers did NOT actually matter. What was written down did NOT actually matter. He knew deep down that he actually did win the race. All of his work had paid off. Nothing could take that away from him, and a piece of cheap metal had no indication of his accomplishments.

The Results?

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Maybe this will work out for him. Maybe it won’t. He seems at peace now of the results, and is resigned to telling people that he will probably get a 2nd placed medal for the event despite winning it. And he says it with a smile.

Tomorrow morning (the day this is getting released) they are giving out the awards from the meet. I hope he sticks with the newfound understanding of the situation, and I am hopeful it improves his outlook on competition as a whole. I have been incredibly proud of how well he has handled the situation, and hope this experience can spill over into future competitions.

Teaching your kid to WIN and LOSE the right way is tough. But teaching your kid to LOSE when they actually WIN is a whole different ball game. Or swim meet. Choose your own sport analogy.

Embrace the Imperfection

Imperfect Dad, MD

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