For kids, few things compare to the giddy elation of victory or to the crushing disappointment of defeat. Heck, it’s pretty much the same for adults. Our challenge as parents is to learn to temper these reactions, so we’re not raising whiny kids who scream Not fair! at every loss or who adopt in-your-face attitudes when they win.
Sound familiar? We’ve all experienced this at one time or another. It’s an important issue to address, as this behavior can lead to relentless arguments about scores, cheating, pouting at times of defeat, obnoxious bragging, quitting activities or making excuses rather than coping with loss.
Our instincts are to shield our children from every hazard and celebrate their triumphs. So it’s natural to want to let them win at a card game, overemphasize their role in their little league’s victory or even shy away from competitive activities to avoid potential disappointment. But we live in a competitive world. Sooner or later they will have to learn to deal with opposition without having a meltdown.
As a child, I never had that problem. My family still enjoys embarrassing me by sharing soccer game stories where our team lost because I would chat with other players on the field, unfazed by the ball rolling by. My son, on the other hand, can make a competition out of any activity. In the morning, he declares that he can make it downstairs first. At bedtime, he bets that he can put on his pajamas faster.
While amusing, this competitive bent mixed with his sensitive nature is a recipe for trouble, especially in our family. His closest relatives are his cousins, both varsity basketball players and intensely involved in the game. With March Madness in full swing, they fervidly root for their favorite teams, and my son, significantly younger than my two nephews, mirrors their enthusiasm. Unlike my nephews, when my son’s team loses, it’s a DEFCON 2 fit of despair.
The difference, of course, involves age and maturity, but my nephews have also developed a healthy understanding of competition by participating in sports themselves. They’ve learned to constructively accept loss, respect their opponents and cheer on teammates, even when it shifts attention away from their talents. This healthy attitude developed with encouragement from my sister and her husband. And my nephew’s skills spill over to other activities in their lives, too, from schoolwork to social interactions.
As my nephews have done, learning to face ups and downs with grace will go a long way to improving self-esteem and sportsmanship, even if your kid is an I-will-own-you-at-getting-ready-for-bed type. Not only will they find success in athletic endeavors, but in life as well. Following are 10 tips to help you teach your kids to be better sports, on and off the field.
1. Keep the focus on fun. Once you’ve settled on some activities that interest your children, have them explain to you what they like about each game. Remind them of those things when the scores aren’t satisfying. Whether they are rushing to you in excitement or schlepping home in defeat, always be sure to point out fun moments in the match.
2. Emphasize effort. Remind yourself that your child is not a professional. He or she is not getting paid to perform and therefore has no reason to worry about who is winning. Instead, concentrate your attention on their efforts. Praise ways they give 100 percent and reassure them that a loss or a win isn’t as important as doing their best.
3. Set goals. Help your kid decide what he or she wants to achieve. Maybe it’s to perfect their passing game or score more three-pointers. Or perhaps it’s to simply learn the rules. Whatever it is, keep their focus on achieving those skills rather than comparing themselves to teammates or agonizing over scores. Track their progress and use their setbacks as learning opportunities.
4. Model good behavior. Kids parrot their parents. When you yell at the TV after an opposing team scores, they learn that winning points is important, and, in turn, adopt those frustrations. Whether live or on television, check your conduct during games. Praise others for their efforts, respect the coach’s decisions and congratulate opposing players in front of your kid. They’ll learn from your example.
5. Provide consequences. If they can’t be a good sport, bench them. Once they’ve relaxed, explain to them, in terms they can understand, why they are being punished. Even if they are responding to taunts from an opposing player, explain, “We don’t talk like that on our team.”
6. Downplay celebrations. Teach your kid to keep celebrations low-key. One way to do this is to help them redirect their enthusiasm to the next play. Instead of gloating, they should be thinking, “What’s next?” Also, emphasize team efforts and the role luck plays in the game. “Good thing Jessica passed you the ball,” or “It was lucky the goalie jumped the wrong way.” Urge your kid to recognize excellence and effort in others and to give shout-outs when he or she sees them.
7. Commit to practices and games. It’s ok for your child to decide that a particular activity is not one they would like to pursue. However, they must learn to stick to current commitments. When you sign them up for a sport, teach them that it’s their responsibility to put in the work, sit on the bench when necessary and show up to every practice.
8. Minimize pressure. If your child decides they don’t like a sport or activity, don’t push it. Children who are pressured to do sports often get burned out. Set a balance with non-competitive activities and reassure your child that he or she doesn’t need to perform to make you happy.
9. Ask for input. Ask your kid the rules of good sportsmanship and write their answers down. This will help them consider and commit to better behavior, from respecting the coach to valuing teamwork, by giving them a voice on the subject.
10. Accept loss. When your kid inevitably loses a game, don’t feel too sorry for them or else they’ll put too much importance on the loss. Instead, help them congratulate everyone on the opposing team, identify problems, remedy deficiencies, reset goals and laugh at errors. This will help them realize that falling short of a goal doesn’t mean they are falling short as people and that we love them just the same.