Letting Kids Learn How To Lose

Keiki such as these grow up not learning how to compete. Honolulu Star-Advertiser photo

“You can’t win unless you learn how to lose.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

A few weeks ago, our grandsons, 7 and 10, were on Oahu from Waimea on the Big Isle for a soccer tournament at Waipahu’s Waipio Peninsula Soccer Complex. Unfortunately, my husband and I were on the Mainland and missed the tourney, but we were able to spend time with the boys when we got home. The older one, Lyle, was pretty excited that he had scored the last goal of the last game of his team’s season.

“What was the final score?” I asked. “I don’t really know,” he said. We don’t keep score. “Well, how did your team do in the tournament?” I then asked. “I’m not really sure,” he answered.

Based on this exchange, you might think my grandson was a little slow on the uptake, but I assure you he’s a very bright kid. I know this based on a Scrabble game in which Grammy, the writer for 18 years (that’s me), barely squeaked out a win (keeping score per the rules). The 7-year-old had a good run at Grammy, too.

As a person who loves competitive games and winning, I scratch my head in wonder at how an attitude has emerged in youth sports in America that teaches that scoring is irrelevant and every child gets a trophy – even if he or she hardly tries at practice or on the field.

A game or sport by its very design has a winner and a loser. Otherwise, it’s just a practice or, in some cases, a potluck preceded by some running and kicking. A game where a team or individual either wins or loses is the culmination of weeks of practice. It’s where all the “Bumblebees” or the “Blue Crush” put on their cool matching shirts and shin guards and give it their all for the team. In the end, there is a score, handshakes with the other team, and an opportunity for valuable life lessons whether the team wins or loses.

Years ago, when my son was 6, I coached his soccer team, the Green Hornets. My goal was to impart to the kids early on the importance of field positions instead of letting them run helter skelter like bees in a swarm. I’ll never forget little Harlan, who I assigned to a fullback spot in the left corner of the field. After the kickoff, he – along with the whole team – was to move forward. The whistle blew and just as practiced, everyone moved forward, except Harlan. Harlan remained planted in the shade of a big oak tree that canopied the field’s left side. His mortified parents loudly urged him forward. No dice. Harlan wasn’t budging. At season’s end, Harlan did not get a trophy. Even at 6, he understood why.

Then there was Chris, who, at 7, was big for his age. On purpose, his mother bought his soccer shoes a full size too large because his feet were growing so fast. Chris had heart galore on the field. His full-out effort was only exceeded by the length of his floppy shoes. In the big championship playoff game, the Green Hornets were tied 2-2. Only seconds were left on the clock and the ball was passed to Chris. Without hesitation, maintaining deft control of both the ball and his size 10s, he dribbled all the way down the field, booting the soccer ball plus his right shoe into the goal to score the winning point – for the other team. An embarrassed and tearful Chris, I hope you’re not surprised to read, did get an award: I think parents and coaches and grandparents and school-teachers need to be OK with letting children lose.

I don’t believe children learn self-esteem by giving them kudos when they barely try or just aren’t good at something. It’s meaningless and phony, and kids see through it.

The oath of the Special Olympics is “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” This is a great philosophy once at the core of our nation’s greatness.

Let it be so again. spage@hawaii.rr.com