“Losing builds character” is a hard expression to swallow when your 9-year-old athlete climbs into the car sobbing after yet another defeat.
In “The Mighty Ducks,” the classic movie about a group of hapless ice hockey players, the team bands together, gets better and eventually wins. That’s the dream of players on losing teams: that it ends. But for many kids’ sports teams, it doesn’t. Instead, the scoreboard is a taunt. There are no trophies, no victory laps.
So is losing all the time really good for children? And their parents?
It can be. Experts agree that losing at sports, no matter how unending, can allow children to learn from failure. Losing all the time builds philosophy, camaraderie, sportsmanship and the idea of athletics as a series of incremental victories. The team may falter, but teammates improve, moment by moment.
Teams chronically lose for all kinds of reasons. They don’t have enough equipment or practice time, they get plunked in the wrong division, or they just lack talent. Once a team starts a downward cycle, it’s hard to stop. Most people don’t like losing, with the demoralizing tick of the scoreboard, watching while the other team’s players throw victorious hands in the air. Parents juggle complex family schedules for seemingly countless practices, then wonder what it’s all for when their child’s team never comes home triumphant.
When placed on a struggling team, some children dedicate themselves to the sport, striving to improve and perhaps even try out for a more competitive team. Others realize that the sport offers them the exercise, social time and fellowship that they love. The score doesn’t bother them at all.
Jeannette Roegge lives in Bethesda, and played soccer and lacrosse in college. She coached her daughter’s losing soccer team — 9- and 10-year-olds — for two years.
Roegge learned a lot from that team, and believes that the parents did, too. Some players were copacetic with losing all the time, she says, while others grew frustrated. If children “have the fire in the belly, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t,” says Roegge. The struggling team she coached eventually dispersed. Some went on to play at higher levels, and some left soccer to pursue other interests.
Milt Shapiro, who lives in Washington, has coached his three children through a combined 20 seasons of Little League baseball. He doesn’t worry if a player cries, even though tears distress parents. “I love the fact that he’s crying,” he says. “He cares and he’s passionate. We will change that into something we can use on the field.”
One year, Shapiro coached a team that lost “by football scores.”
“I would focus on small victories within each game,” he says. “What can we do to win this inning? This situation? And I would celebrate that. And tell them, watch what these guys are doing. They’re not just out there beating you up. They’re playing baseball.”
Tony Mazza lives in Washington. He has coached 14 seasons of youth T-ball and baseball. It’s all right if a team consistently loses, he says, because of the many chances kids have to improve along the way, regardless of the outcome. Players can concentrate on what they can control, such as hustling to first base, or even back to the dugout after striking out. “It’s not a zero-sum game here. Everyone can win their individual battle.”
Mazza’s last-place team eventually worked its way to the top of the league, and met a beleaguered team that had only five players during a playoff series. He asked five of his players to play for the opposing team, and to do their best. His team won by a run, so the standings remained intact, but he says the team learned something about sportsmanship along the way. His players, who knew what it was like to be on the losing end, had honored the spirit of competition, he says. “The other team is not your enemy.”
Sports psychologist Caroline Silby, who practices in the Washington area, says in an email that the real problem with losing all the time lies with the parents. Trying to make children win all the time can be harmful. Also, losing is not such a big deal that it should be hushed up. If parents don’t speak about games — or seasons — that ended badly, children may think that means that failure is so awful that they shouldn’t even talk about it.
Also, Silby says, if parents get angry, blame unskilled players, or dwell on a loss, they ruin the whole point of being on a team: a sense of belonging. Athletes who have that feeling — that they are connected to something larger than themselves — are less stressed and have higher self-esteem. And overall, she says, losing seasons can give athletes some perspective, and help them grow better at managing frustration and doubt.
Even if kids quit a sport, it’s probably not because of all the defeat. Most young athletes want to get out there, no matter what, Silby says. “In fact, surveys show that children overwhelmingly indicate that they would prefer to play on a losing team than sit the bench on a winning team.”
If it’s going to be one of those seasons, Mazza says, maintaining the morale of the children is not hard. But the parents have to believe things will get better. If coaches keep hope alive, the score won’t matter.
“If you treat the children like adults, and the adults like children, sometimes it seems to work out a lot better,” Mazza says. The children, he says, just want respect and dignity; the parents, attention and listening.
Says Shapiro: “They’re kids, right? They’re so resilient.”
Eliza McGraw is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. and the author of “Here Comes Exterminator!,” about the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner.
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