Winning. Losing. Trying.

I’ll admit it; I like to win. After a well fought battle of skill and strategy, victory is sweet.

I also don’t mind losing. It’s not as sweet, but as long as everyone played fair, I will respect the victor. And I generally try to learn something from the defeat.

Unfortunately, children today aren’t allowed this sense of accomplishment or challenge. It doesn’t matter if it’s team sports or an individual effort, with young children there are no winners and no losers. We don’t keep score; we don’t keep stats. We no longer assign first place. Losing is hard, so winning is bad.

Organized sports groups and schools are removing aspects of winning or losing–different elements depending on people’s attitudes and experiences—in an effort to improve the ‘sporting’ experience for everyone. What’s left is a shadow of the skills, wrapped up in a false sense of fairness and fun, with the goal of making sure everyone is happy. But well-meaning adults are confusing happy with winning and assuming defeat automatically equals sadness.

I know there are plenty of experts who claim that winning and losing is harmful to children’s development. Being an active participant is more important, and kids who lose don’t want to take part, develop low self-esteem, and resent the winners. I don’t disagree with the science, but I think society’s response has affected the wrong part of the equation.

I believe we’re cheating our kids because we aren’t properly defining winning, losing and trying. We aren’t teaching our kids the value of sport and competition. Instead, we’re hiding from embarrassing behaviours.

Losing isn’t for losers. Kids need to learn that they won’t win all the time. Losing is a valuable life lesson. Learning how to lose honourably today and then give 100% again tomorrow will serve children well in many of life’s situations. But to deny kids the win—to deny them the sense of accomplishment as a result of honest effort—is wrong.

Winning is only for a moment. Tomorrow is a different competition. Winning is also a valuable lesson; the reward for persistence, practice and growth. And for as much as kids learn to lose, they also need to learn how to win. The victor needs to learn how to revel in a sense of accomplishment without diminishing the skill of the opponent. In turn, to shelter the opponent from a loss—to deny them the respect earned from an honest effort with the motivation and challenge to try again—is wrong.

When I coached U7 soccer in the community, we we’re told not to keep score. In reality, the parents pretended to ignore the number of goals while the kids knew the score exactly. Through the season, I found it challenging to help 6 year olds learn the sport and the different skills required, and to play with eagerness and enthusiasm, all in quest to score a goal—but the goal didn’t matter. Let’s be honest, parents don’t cheer a solid pass or a strong throw in with the same enthusiasm for a ball in the goal. There are no hi-fives for a smooth corner kick. (Ironically, at the pro level—where goals matter and are counted—there is also tremendous respect and analysis for the finer skills.)

This is the same story everywhere, from organized and community sports to school activities. Merely participating is the accomplishment; excelling is wasted.

Competition is a moment in time. It is a combination of activities—skills and circumstances—with clear rules and objectives. Players enter into each competition having practiced and trained, knowing that the outcome is yet to be determined. All the competitors have an equal chance to win or lose. The point is to try. The fun is in trying.

I recently participated in a safety training program for Hockey Canada, and the instructor shared some wonderful wisdom. Kids on his team were badmouthing the other team before the game. “Hate” was the word they were using. His response to those kids was beautifully simple: “Without the other team, there is no game. You can’t hate them. You need them.”

We need to teach kids to respect the competition as the place to test your skills. We need to remember that winning and losing are just outcomes, and the thrill of competition—the thrill of learning new skills and testing them in action—is an incredibly valuable lesson for all kids. We need to honour winning, losing and trying.

One last thought. I believe that the reason schools and parents push to reward participation equally has more to do with encouraging physical activity (health) than preventing discouraged athletes. I believe our kids know this, too.

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