Make Losing Safe Again

The hosts of one of the podcasts I regularly listen to got into a debate about whether or not it’s ok to beat your kids at games when playing at home.  Actually, the original intention of the host who brought the subject up was to discuss at what age it’s ok to start beating your kids at games, but the other host changed the direction of the discussion by responding to the original question with “Wait, you don’t let your kids win?”

Their debate was sparked by this article from Good Housekeeping that was published a couple years ago.  The line that particularly jumped out at me was this one: “Because if they’re not afraid to lose, then hopefully they won’t be afraid to try out for the lacrosse team, or audition for the school play, or learn a new instrument or a new language or a new parkour trick.”  The idea of not being afraid to lose is one that I try to instill in our coaches at all levels.

Also a few years ago, I wrote this post about learning how to lose.  [If you’re a coach or a parent of a young athlete, please take the time to read that post, too.  That post has a slightly different take on this theme, so the two posts complement each other well.]  I originally wrote that post because it relates to the second goal of our athletic department: to teach kids how to compete/win/lose.  It’s important that our kids are free from fear of failure because of the effect that fear of failure can have on performance.  Here’s how I explain it to our coaches:

  • Mistakes have to be made in order to improve a skill or performance.
    – One of my sons is a fairly new-ish club swimmer who has been working on starting from the blocks.  He’s terrible at it right now, so his starts are not good.
  • Punishing mistakes leads to a fear of failure.
    – If his coaches (or I) yell at him for his terrible starts off the blocks, he will naturally do what he can to no longer get yelled at.
  • Fear of failure leads to a lack of risk taking.
    – He knows that he can start from in the pool, so to avoid getting yelled at, he will no longer start from the blocks.
  • A lack of risk taking leads to a stale performance.
    – If he no longer starts from the blocks, his starts will not get better so he won’t be able to swim to his full potential.
  • If a stale performance leads to more criticism, then the athlete will further fear failure, and the cycle will repeat.
    – If he no longer wants to get yelled at for his poor starts from the blocks, and if he’s also getting yelled at for starting from the pool, the only option he has left would be to no longer participate in swimming.
    **And how the heck is he going to learn those fantastic life lessons that sports can teach if he isn’t participating in sports?? 

For that reason, it’s important for kids to accept mistakes as opportunities for growth.  The only way that kids can accept mistakes is if they feel safe enough to make those mistakes.  This is why youth sports HAVE TO BE a safe place for kids to make mistakes, to make poor decisions, and to lose.  The legendary John Wooden summarizes it even better: “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.  I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

Unfortunately, our youth sports culture of organized leagues, high priced participation, and an excessive value placed on athletic performance has led to more pressure being placed on kids to win games instead of on improving.  If the pressure to win is too great, kids become afraid to fail, and that fear of failure hampers kids from learning important life skills.

For instance, last summer at a Cal Ripken baseball game (11-12 year olds), I saw a shortstop boot a ground ball.  There should be absolutely nothing groundbreaking, shocking, or concerning about an 11 year old who fails to cleanly field a ground ball…however…this error happened in the middle of a long half inning when the other team was putting together several hits and scoring several runs, on pace to put the game out of reach.  This would have been the perfect time for the team’s coach to give any number of life lessons:

– Intensity: Stay focused for every play.
– Resilience: That play is over; let’s make the next one.
– Persistence: Keeping playing hard; you’re ok.
– Instruction: Keep your glove down/move your feet/attack the ball/whatever skill it was that just went wrong.
– Dependability: Keep your head up; we’re going to need you to make the next play.
– Teamwork: Get us the next out, and we’ll get that run back.

And on and on.  This really was the perfect opportunity to turn the young kid’s mistake into a usable lesson that he could carry with him beyond this game.  The focus could have been on his individual improvement following the mistake rather than the effect the mistake had on his team’s ability to win the game.

Instead, here is the message shouted by his coach:
“Pull your head out of your butt!”

The life lesson that all of the kids on the team received was “If I make a mistake, an adult is going to yell at me for having my head up my butt.  It’s important that I no longer make mistakes because I do not want to be yelled at in front of everybody.”  Does that mentality work for some kids?  Sure, but not for most kids, especially on a team of 11 and 12 year olds.  The natural reaction for most of the kids on that team will play more tentatively.

The real difficulty with this message is that it happened while playing a game that’s supposed to be fun.  I think that’s worth repeating: kids playing games are supposed to be having fun.  Because let’s be honest, the result of this game didn’t make a single difference to anyone involved.  The coaches and parents still had to go to work the next morning, and the kids still had to clean their rooms and take out the garbage.  No adult’s quality of life was changing as a result of either this ground ball or this game, so the focus should have been on improving the skills of the kid.  In all reality, that statement is true of high school sports, too.

So let’s bring it back to the Good Housekeeping article about whether or not to beat your kid at Candyland or Trouble or checkers or whatever.  Teach them that losing is ok, but more importantly, teach them how to learn from losing.  The skills that they learn from losing at Candyland should grow into usable adult skills for when they “lose” an interview or a promotion, but only if our youth sports coaches and parents continue teaching them the right lessons through mistakes and losing.

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