Monday, August 10, 2015
There’s no argument that winning is a pretty fantastic state of affairs. We celebrate wins, praise winners, catalog victories, and create statistics to measure the awesomeness of wins. There are winning percentages, winning streaks, largest and smallest margins of victory, shutouts, wins in a season, wins in history, and number of wins against various opponents. There is of course the darker B side of those figures: losing percentages, losing streaks, largest and smallest margins of defeat, being shutout, losses in a season, losses in history, and number of losses against various opponents. We have to take the yin with the yang. Wins can inspire confidence, but they can also make us nervous because we are just waiting for an inevitable loss. All of us have witnessed the momentum of a game shift when a team scores or is scored against. There’s a psychological component that affects not just individual players, but the entire team and the fans. We don’t know what to say in those circumstances. It’s easy to cheer and stay engaged when our team is winning; less so when our team is losing. As a society we are all about winning, so it’s not surprising that our kids buy into the “win” mentality early on. They see how depressed we are following a Packer loss and how elated we can be when LeBron pushes the Cavs to yet another victory. They hear the language we use when we talk about victories and defeats. They were all flies on the wall across the country when we lambasted Pete Carroll’s decision in the waning seconds of the Super Bowl. They have heard the language of losing.
Kids naturally want to please, and what better way to please than by a win. They don’t want to fall in the dark abyss of a loss. Yet fifty percent or more of our player’s matches will be losses. Most of us, myself included, don’t really know how to speak the language of losing other than to be angry, defeatist, and blaming. For professional teams we don’t have the constraints of personal interactions so it’s easy to yell at the TV, call into question coaching decisions for our major league teams, point the finger at a player who let the team down, and generally spit venom afterwards. No child wants to be at the receiving end of that judgment, so it’s not surprising youth players take losses hard – they know how we react. They see a loss as a failure of performance both from the team and from themselves. Spoken or unspoken they know how a loss is regarded. Therefore we need to learn what to say following losses both with our professional teams and with our kids so that we don’t automatically set up the discouragement. A loss doesn’t need to be synonymous with failure, defeat, disappointment, and catastrophe if we know the proper language to address the situation.
Youth sports contests should be about development, not about wins or losses, which we translate into success or failure. Learning to talk to our kids about losses means shifting our thinking from how we view most sports. Anger, even rage, are not appropriate reactions even though we have been conditioned to that response all our lives. We need to temper our language. Some games end up in losses, some end up in shutouts, and some end up in routs, but all games are intended to teach our kids valuable lessons about soccer. It’s those lessons we should be addressing. Was there improvement? Did the team display good sportsmanship? Did kids create opportunities? When kids win, it’s easy to find ways to express ourselves. There’s no need for criticism and plenty of room for praise, but those same principles should be on display win or lose. Avoid critical remarks because they are far too easy to slip into something ugly and personal. Leave those statements to the coaches who will decide when and what to highlight. Refrain from blaming anyone for the loss. It won’t change the outcome, won’t ensure a win in the next match, and can only adversely affect the players’ self-esteem. Instead find moments in the game to illuminate with approval. A loss shouldn’t illicit depression and resentment as it usually does. A loss is a bitter pill, but as Mary Poppins says, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” If we parents rise above despondency, then so can our kids. If they understand that we aren’t disappointed in them, then they can be freed to take risks in their matches which is how they develop.
Losses are never fun. We build ourselves up for victory, rather than prepare ourselves for defeat. Retaining that positive outlook will go a long way in helping our kids accept the roller coaster of playing youth sports and move forward no matter the result. We should always be building ourselves up for whatever gems our kids bring us instead of focusing on outcomes. We can use the same language for losses as we use for wins so long as we look for the good points. Of course kids can tell if we’re being disingenuous, so I’m not suggesting false enthusiasm. We need to work on readjusting our way of dealing with losses whether with our kids or with our favorite college or pro team. We should speak of effort, improvement, special moments, and support. When a team loses, we don’t need to immediately go to the darkest place even if it is the World Series, the Super Bowl or the Champions League final. With our kids watching, we need to temper our responses otherwise they will expect the same outrage when they lose. It’s not easy to stay positive but we must learn how to do it.
I’m not suggesting that losses are the same as wins, and kids do need to learn how to handle losses because they experience several of them. Some losses will be more painful than others – big championships, games we expect to win, and embarrassingly lopsided outcomes. We shouldn’t discount the loss, but we should also learn to talk about it with a language that isn’t harsh, critical, and accusatory. We can acknowledge the loss and even acknowledge the pain of the loss, but we should also bring the experience around to a positive teaching moment. That’s why we need to find value in a loss and point out that value to our kids. That’s why we can’t make someone on the team a scapegoat because that merely diminishes the trust our player will have in his or her teammate. And that’s why we can’t be so angry that we make our kids fearful of losing desperately wanting to avoid the pain of being the object of fury. We can sidestep the knee-jerk reactions of losing and develop a more constructive approach so that our children understand loss is just a part of the journey towards wins. They can be disappointed that they lost just as we can be disappointed, but no one should evoke discussions of failure which is a far more final and unredeemable piece of language. Acknowledging a loss isn’t the same as wallowing in it. We should help our kids put losses in perspective which means finding the way a loss will help them improve their skills and future outcomes. It all depends on the words we use to deal with it.