Winning at Losing

Congratulations to the Denver Broncos on a terrific and historic season.  Congratulations to the Seattle Seahawks on being Champions. They are a team that dismantled the greatest pro football offense of all time. It should have been a great game.  Unfortunately, for lack of a better word, it sucked.

In case you haven’t guessed, I am a Bronco fan. I thought that they would at least give the Seahawks a run if not crush them. Sparing the pain of rehashing the whole thing, I will say that the closest the Broncos came to competing in the game was the coin toss.  They did lose that but it turned out that the 50/50 chance of winning was their best play of the day.

There were times during the game that if felt as if we were watching a horror movie; I almost covered my children’s eyes to avoid them witnessing the slaughter.  I did not cover their eyes because I realized they needed to see it. It was an opportunity to show that, no matter what, you can’t always win. The players were exposed to pressure of scrutiny and judgment and to the risk of failure.  It was a risk they were willing to take.

Although it appeared the Broncos were sleepwalking, I believe that basically all of the athletes on that field played as hard as they could. They worked extremely hard to get to that level and it was clear before the game how much they rejoiced in that. They faced each other in front of a world that would either love them in victory or hate them in defeat.  They clashed knowing that despite their best effort, no matter how determined they were, they could lose.  Then again, everybody will lose or fail at some point in their life. It’s just a fact.

There has been a trend to hand trophies out to every child in their sports leagues no matter how they finish. This sounds like a neat idea. You would think it helps kids feel good. You would think that self-esteem and motivation to compete would be stoked. There is a lack of evidence that the ubiquitous trophies help the kids achieve these things.

It actually appears that if an award is given to all kids for any performance, it can be detrimental. A child who knows he or she doesn’t “deserve” a trophy but gets it may not learn to handle adversity. It may cause that child to doubt his ability or people’s motives for compliments. It may cause low frustration tolerance and quitting in situations that demand work and don’t offer the promise of quick rewards.  It may cause kids to put less value on accomplishment. Additionally, if a child knows a trophy is coming no matter what, why try hard?

We should allow our children to face challenges and to face the possibility of losing. If we focus on constant protection from loss, rescue them without having them figure out what to do, we set them up for failure in the form of difficulty transitioning to adulthood.  Without a certain amount of stress in childhood, there is lack of growth and development of skills and strategies to manage challenges.  Fear of success or failure may lead to avoidance and lack of effort.

There are times we must protect our kids.  Generally those times should be reserved for instances when a child is in harm’s way emotionally or physically.  We must also make it clear that we expect our children to put out best efforts to achieve goals.  We teach through action that they need to be persistent and to work hard.  It is ok to dream big and expect success.  We remind them that we are there to support them in the good and bad times.

For Bronco fans, this extremely heart-breaking Super Bowl was an opportunity to learn how to lose well (seasoned Bronco fans are already well acquainted with that). Granted, winning is fun.  When things are good, I can prance around in my Manning jersey like a king. I can seek all of the stories and view all the specials about what a winner Denver is. I can party and join in the victory parade and high five all of my fellow Denver fans. That’s pretty easy; especially considering the players did all of the work.

But what do we do after they get creamed? That’s the hard part. Knowing how to handle that is a key to success and happiness in life.  Knowing you can keep going despite loss or failure makes the good times more available and creates true joy.  It generally starts by accepting that you should feel really bad after something like that.

Most of the Bronco players understand that.  Next season, they will once again proudly don those bright orange jerseys and they will enter preseason ready to work like maniacs to get back to the big stage; to take the risk of another heart break.  That is exactly how they have achieved at the level they have.  They know that there is so much more reward in pressing forward despite fear, enduring loss and defeat, working to earn a victory than having it handed out.  (Yes, the nice compensation for the work helps as well.)

And what of the Bronco fans?  Since we know how to lose well, we will be reenergized (or masochistic) enough to once again expect them to win the Super Bowl.  It will be fun.

6 thoughts on “Winning at Losing

  1. Gina R says:

    Wow! Great article. First one I have seen that does not agree with the “everyone gets a medal for trying” (win or lose). And I agree! Otherwise, why try! And speaking from experience, I truly cherish victories because they have been hard fought for and few attained! When I achieve a victory I want to climb the highest mountain and shout it out to the whole world. Now if I can just accept the victories, no matter how small, and celebrate them! And know they are part of the game of life…the ups and downs. But they do exist!

  2. vonette says:

    Hi Steve,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head! The tendency to protect our kids from EVERYTHING, speaks more to OUR insecurities than theirs. But in the process of being hyper-vigilant, we deprive them of learning some important life lessons and should be ashamed of ourselves. Whoops, no guilt tripping allowed on this site, right?!!!

    I DO feel your pain, and I think this particular article was a VERY brave attempt to be sane, when all you really want to do is throw a tantrum!! I am not even a football fan (Ray definitely is!), but I chose to watch the game with him. Incredulous as it unfolded, I almost lost it as I thought of my dear Denver family. Hope you were together to lick each others’ wounds.

    In closing, I’d like to express my heartfelt condolences by saying “Seahawks be damned!!”. Oh, I almost forgot…. we’re adults here…..NOT!!

    Love to all.

  3. Geoff Schaney says:

    Great article and right on target. Success and failure is a part of life and the ability to learn how to appropriately deal with both is a lesson better served early and with guidance. That said, the dismantling of the Broncos was due to a fantastic game plan put together by a coaching staff and executed exactly as it was designed by an enthusiastic team of players. Ouch!

  4. Dr. Steve Sarche says:

    Vonette, as usual, thanks for reading and for the comments. You’re right, we’d like to think we are adults here but it’s important we have a bit of “kid” in us as well.

  5. Carol and MIke says:

    Loved the article. You covered some very important points about winning and losing. We agree entirely with the idea of not rewarding all children in a competition and glad that you brought that up. As life long Cub fans we know all about “wait til next year” and have fun with the anticipation…Now would you like to buy 32 Bronco shirts????
    Carol and Mike

  6. Erin Toll Glover says:

    Thank goodness! A shrink who doesn’t believe kids will be scarred for life if each one doesn’t get a medal for having played basketball, no matter how poorly. My 6’8″ college basketball player husband has been coaching my son’s team for 3 years. Each kids does NOT get a medal. Instead, they get words at the end of the season party explaining how they improved or what they need to keep working on. The parents seem to adore him. Each year there is a wait list to get on his team. The kids love him, too. It seems kids want to know how to get better at a sport and getting a medal when they know they never scored a point must be confusing. Thanks for another wonderful article.

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