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Why Kids Should Have the Opportunity to Lose

Feb 10, 2015, 14:55 PM by

For Children Who Don't Want to Deal With Missed Field Goals, There Is A Lot of Winning in Losing

As I often do, I was walking around the track at the Arapahoe Y, listening to a podcast. I like podcasts for walking—even though they sometimes make me laugh out loud or get me all emotional and teary-eyed.

On this particular day, on the Monday or Tuesday after the Super Bowl, I was listening to RadioLab. It's a favorite, and this particular podcast was fascinating. The show was themed "American Football," and it explored the history of this incendiary sport and the contradictions we face as football fans. The part that struck me particularly hard was at the very end of the show: Ryan Wallerson of the Wall Street Journal reported that nationally we are seeing drops in the number of young people playing football. The more he looked into it, the more he realized that the decline in participation was not just saved for the gridiron. He saw "noted drops in all of the biggest youth sports," he told listeners. Except for lacrosse and hockey, kids are not playing sports as much as they once did.

According to the show, these play a part in the youth sports decline:

  • Awareness and concern about concussions
  • Budgeting issues (or lack of budgeting)
  • Athlete burn-out: Kids who specialize in one sport can be overworked and their bodies overused

They then surveyed a bunch of youth sports coaches and found another main reason for kids backing out of sports: Kids don't like losing.

Yeah, I know, no one likes losing. Everyone has at least one story of a childhood sports loss. I played so many sports as a child—and I played them all with extreme mediocrity—that I can't even remember all the losses. There were basketball losses, volleyball losses, softball losses, tennis losses, track losses and swimming losses. If you can lose at learning to ice skate, I did it. And I'm a better person for it (that's what my mom always said).

[Tweet ""If you can lose at learning to ice skate, I did it." @YMCABV"]

So it blows my mind that our kids have an intensified aversion to striking out. According to coaches interviewed in the piece, some kids are becoming so accustomed to pushing the “reset button” on video games that they no longer want to risk losing on the court. Kids are no longer exposed to losing because in the digital world they can stop and start over any time it’s not going their way. Then at some point they realize, "Hey, I don't have to lose, ever!"

Those little masterminds have figured a way around one of childhood's most important rights of passage. Sports are not just about fun and games. They teach kids teamwork, sportsmanship, leadership, communication and responsibility. They teach them about consequences, about rules and guidelines, about speaking your mind and allowing others to have their say. Individual and team sports help kids learn about hard work and give them a lifelong love of physical activity.

And to my point, sports teach kids how to be winners and how to be losers, and those are important lessons to learn as kids…because you don't want to be a 46-year-old who can't handle losing. It's about being a good sport—even when you are not actually playing sports. It's about learning how to handle rejection and to fail with dignity (and to win with class). It's about commitment, steadfastness and not giving up.

[Tweet ""It's about being a good sport—even when you are not actually playing sports."@YMCABV"]

"Americans tend to frame things in terms of contests and wars that must be won or lost. Many challenges, however, are about hanging in there and managing a bad situation. Losing prepares you for the slog that is life. The world doesn’t give us many finish lines, but it does give us the long run," wrote John Schwartz, a science writer for The New York Times.

So, what can you do? As a parent or volunteer couch, there is plenty you can do to inspire love for sports in your family:

  • Make sports fun.
  • Focus on progressive skill development.
  • Listen to them. Maybe you prefer to perch on the soccer sidelines, but she may rather don a hockey jersey and sweat it out on the ice.
  • Put the emphasis on hard work and teamwork—over winning. Instead of saying, "You are so good at basketball" or "You could be so good at basketball," say "You are working so hard! I'm so proud of you!"
  • Be a mentor. Talk about your love of sports with your kids. Play sports as a family.
  • And watch sports as a family. When the Broncos tragically lose (as they sometimes do), don't freak out and threaten to burn your Elway jersey on the front lawn. Show your kids that you know how to be a good loser too.

Andra Coberly is the communications specialist at the YMCA of Boulder Valley. She is a firm believer in the power of losing. 

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