Helping kids learn to lose well

Increasingly here in Oz we’ve been hearing about violence in junior rugby clubs around the country. On many occasions police have been called out to deal with violent incidents and brawls involving not just players, but often parents and even coaches.

I know such incidents are not limited to rugby league but, whatever the code or sport, I think most people would agree that when adults behave badly at junior sports events, the young people on the field are not witnessing or learning ‘sporting’ behaviour.

Sure sport is competitive, necessarily so in many cases, and I think a good bit of healthy competition can be a good thing and many of our kids – especially our energetic ‘roosters’ thrive on it. However it’s up to us as their parents, teachers and coaches to show kids what healthy competition looks like.

And while we’re at it we mustn’t leave out fun, fitness, fairness, teamwork and personal growth. Sports offers up all these things or at least it should.

A couple of weeks ago I got a beautiful message from a Dad, James*, who’d been to one of my boys’ seminars. He has a 3-year-old son and, reflecting on his own experiences of sport as a youth, he wanted my advice on how to keep it fun.

James wrote:

From the age of 10 sport was a big part of my school life. I excelled and represented my country in Rugby and cricket at U/12 and U/16 and Rugby for 3yrs at U/21 level. The sad fact is I never enjoyed one game as far as I can remember – I could not wait for the games to be over and my biggest concern was I did not want to lose so I did not let anyone down (teammates, coach, parents). I was afraid of failure and I believe I could have achieved much more if I enjoyed the game for myself. This meant that the first opportunity I had to stop playing I did.

How do I encourage a sporting talent (or any talent) without forcing any expectations or crushing the enjoyment of the game?

James’ second concern was about the notion of winning and losing in a culture where we are so adamant about rewarding participation. Many of you will know this is a pet hate of mine (and I’m certainly not alone!).

James wondered:

How/when do I teach my son that in life there are winners and losers and that in life you may not be rewarded for participation? How do I teach self-esteem/belief and that hard work pays off?

Firstly I would say that James’ lad is only 3 so he has lots of time to build his social and emotional competence. (I also think it’s great as parents if we reflect on things that happened in our own childhoods that may influence our expectations and reactions with our own kids that’s part of why I loved this message from a mindful Dad!)

It’s great to talk about winners and losers in life not just sport because whatever we model, we teach, and through our own actions we are teaching emotional competence every day.


I would urge parents to ask themselves:

  • Do your kids see you play sport/watch sport?
  • If so, how do you behave when your team loses? How about when they win?
  • Can you keep your comments focused on how well a team plays: “Well, the best team won on the day,” or “They had a great 3rd quarter” but avoid abusing umpires or other players? It’s great if you can because your children will be picking up lots of messages about how to be a fair competitor.

Playing to enjoy an activity is another thing that we can teach our kids especially with team sports or activities. When winning is seen as the only desirable outcome then when we lose there is nothing else to enjoy.

Having fun, enjoying being immersed in something with others, and spending time with friends are all winning aspects of playing sports or joining in other activities.

Taking loss more lightly

There are plenty of techniques we can suggest that make losing less serious and that we shouldn’t take a loss so personally:

  • wave at the crowd in a running race,
  • pat a fellow team player on the back when s/he scores,
  • help someone else who is struggling,
  • cheer on someone else who comes last,
  • teach your kids some one liners they can tell themselves or others in the face of loss –  “I mustn’t have my lucky undies on today”; “I came first at the wrong end” or “What a shame I didn’t eat my spinach”.

We can also teach our kids to get better at failing by playing lots of games in which they can lose but get better the more they play – think card games, noughts and crosses, endless games of beach cricket, Connect 4, clapping games.

In our family having a go and participating is really important – even if there is little chance of winning!

Tell your kids we are all afraid of losing, however it is normal. Having a go is far more important than not having a go, or cheating – being able to ‘suck it up’ and move on to have another go is something our family values.


Practise makes it better

The next message I have for parents like James is to emphasise for your kids the importance of practise. With practise, we can improve at everything. The more we train or rehearse, the more we strive, the better we achieve.

Maybe share stories of famous sports stars who failed and then after training more achieved their previously failed goal. Michael Jordan is a good example of someone who says the only reason they’ve succeeded in life is because they failed many times.

For little children we can show them this in simple ways like catching balls, balancing, and eventually riding their bike without training wheels.

Then, hopefully as their temperaments and tastes start to emerge we can help them find a sport or interest that they love – and this is where they can be inspired to follow their passion.


A note about winning

I would like to add that learning to win graciously is also a valuable life lesson which is almost as important as learning to lose well and that gets better with practise and focus too.

Remember as parents, awareness is our (and our children’s) greatest guide.


Image credit: ©️ matimix /Adobe Stock –