Teaching your kids to be good sports and graceful losers

It can be tough to see that defeated look on your child’s face as you drive home from a losing game.

You watched them battle it out, giving their all and still coming up short. Some kids cry. Some kids scream. Some kids sulk. What you may not realize is that how they react has more to do with you than you think.

“I think a lot of children aren’t sure of how to react,” says Don August, head volleyball coach for boys and girls at Oak Park/River Forest High School.

Of course there will be disappointment, he says, but that doesn’t mean kids should feel free to rant and rave. “Losses are hard and you feel bad about them. You feel bad about them and then you move on.”

Getting kids to talk about how they feel about losing can be a valuable tool they can use through life, says Dr. Sharon L. Hirsch, section chief and assistant professor for child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago. Start the conversation by sharing a loss of your own and how it felt.

“When you lose, you’re upset. But you want them to be able to talk about being sad while at the same time being proud of themselves for doing their best. If they cover up their feelings it leaves them nowhere to go.”

Hirsch, who has three boys ages 5, 7 and 10, says it’s also important for parents to get to know their kids’ coaches. As children get older and start to separate themselves from their parents, they put more weight on the opinions of other adults, she says. A coach with poor sportsmanship can give your child the wrong idea about the right way to lose.

Kids feel under a lot of pressure to win, says Ian McCarthy, teacher and head soccer coach at Whitney M. Young High School and father of two.

While younger kids often have the ability to brush off a loss much easier, McCarthy says impressing peers becomes the overriding goal for older kids and losses can be devastating to social ranking. Pressure is often added because scores are listed in the paper.

Then also add in parents’ own pressure to win and losses can seem overwhelming.

“I think parents are really concerned with winning. I guarantee a lot of parents didn’t play sports that deep into their lives so maybe they are trying to live vicariously through their children,” he says.

One of the most important things you can do as a parent is learn to switch your own focus. Instead of being concerned with the outcome, stress being proud of your child for a job well done. If you’ve planned a post-game trip for ice cream, be sure to make that trip even if your child’s team loses.

Blame is another thing to teach your child to avoid. Children who have suffered a loss may want to blame a fellow teammate, the other team or the referee. While it might seem that others are to blame, this teaches bad habits. Get them to focus on their own contributions in the game, August says.

If your child seems to be overreacting to losing, it might be especially important to take some time for a one-on-one conversation. There might be a deeper issue at play.

“Be a good parent,” Hirsch says. “Talk to your kids and find out what’s going on.”

No matter how you decide to teach your kids good sportsmanship, one important factor remains the same: prepare them for winning and losing before they even go to practice.

“With my own kids it’s pretty important for me to expose them to sportsmanship with losing and to let them know that it’s a part of the process and that they have many more games ahead,” McCarthy says. “They’re gonna win some and lose some and it’s something that’s inevitable.”

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