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Here’s how to teach your kids to lose (and why that’s okay)

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As a sports coach for young kids, Sam Weinman has seen plenty of thrown bats, sour attitudes and tears — all following losses. As a sports journalist, though, he’s observed how professional athletes use losses to boost their skills.

Those experiences inspired him to write the book “Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains.” Through interviews with athletes, politicians and others who have lost at pivotal times in their careers, and through insight from psychologists, he reveals both the dark and bright side of losing.

We spoke with Weinman, digital editor of Golf Digest, to learn how losing offers people of all ages an opportunity for growth.

Washington Post: What made you want to focus on how to handle losing?

Sam Weinman: I originally envisioned it as a small challenge I faced with my boys, but I realized this theme permeates throughout everything — how we deal with our careers, our relationships, looking at the world around us. This was an opportunity to explore the topic and talk to people who had experienced it firsthand.

WP: Why should parents think about losing?

SW: It has short- and long-term implications. In the short term, it’s a part of every kid’s life, these small moments, whether it’s Little League or soccer or trying out for the school play. You’re going to have little moments of failure as a kid that you have to navigate and show up the next day. So having some basic strategies in place is helpful to parents.

WP: Why do kids need to sometimes lose?

SW: It’s an unavoidable experience. At some point in your life you will have to deal with it. The more of a body of experience to draw on, the better equipped you are to deal with it.

WP: As parents we want our kids to be winners.

SW: I’ve found you really want to resist the urge to solve all your kids’ problems. Because in doing so you’re sheltering them from disappointment. You are not equipping them with the ways to solve their problems on their own. If you shelter them from negative outcomes when they’re young, they are not equipped to handle negative outcomes when they’re older.

WP: Losing can be heartbreaking for kids.

SW: I never say in the book that you should not want to win. It’s always more fun to win. My point is once you dry your tears, you should start looking at what you can take from the experience. There are lessons to be learned. If you lost in whatever contest, there is something you could have done better, and losing helps illuminate that. If you’re trying out for the school play and you look down at your feet the whole time while giving your lines, that will become apparent. Next time you know to look up and connect with the audience. Losing is the ultimate truth serum.

WP: Some kids might not want to play a game or a sport if they think they’re not going to win.

SW: It’s a common thing. The “why bother” opinion. I mention this in the book: “Why bother because I’m just going to lose.” The more you understand how losing can be valuable and that losing doesn’t have to be devastating, the less trepidation you have in throwing yourself into whatever endeavor. If you go into a tennis match and you think the only positive is if you win and nothing good can come from losing and you know you will lose, you will not want to play. But if you say, “I might lose but I’ll have fun, I might get better, he might test me in a new way,” then you are less fearful.

WP: What are some strategies for helping kids deal with losing?

SW: The first part is pre-emptive. As a parent I’m a big believer in we shouldn’t be defining success on these sorts of traditional benchmarks like winning a game or making the team or getting an A. That is part of it. But as parents, it’s far more important to be focusing your goals on things like effort and having the right attitude and giving your best.

WP: How can parents convey this?

SW: Even before the contest, let’s define success differently: You’re going to try your best. Stick to the plan you had in place. Even if you lose, you can be proud of the fact that you stuck to that plan. So the first part is reframing what success is. The second part is when there is a loss, still finding some positive to draw on: You lost, but you did X, Y and Z really well and because of that you should feel good about it.

WP: What’s a helpful thing for a parent to say?

SW: Make sure you validate their feelings. I have found it never works when you offhandedly dismiss: “Oh, it was just a game, get over it.” In their world it’s a big deal. Then I would pretty quickly try to spin a story forward, move on. The great thing about being a kid is there is always a next game or next season, so let’s turn the focus to that. You’re now going from something in the past which you can’t control to something in the future which you have more say in. The more you can turn your attention to that, the better off you are.

WP: What should we not do when our kids lose?

SW: Do not belittle their feelings. At least hear them out. It’s big in their world. Let them have that moment.

WP: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

SW: That losing can be an empowering experience. That they shouldn’t be demoralized when confronted with failure. That it can be a great opportunity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Mia Geiger is a writer in the Philadelphia area. You can find her at miageiger.com and @MiaGeiger.

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