Letting Kids Learn the Lessons of Losing

Spring is in the air, and fields are filling up with children playing sports. My oldest daughter just started playing soccer after a hiatus of a couple of years. Her team has lots of wonderful girls and a great coach with loads of experience. However, they have yet to win a game. The season is still young, and things could change any given weekend, but the girls are having to deal with the agony of defeat rather than reveling in the thrill of victory. It’s tough to watch the girls come off the field deflated after each loss, but it is also important for us as parents to let them learn the lessons of losing.

As parents, many of us are probably guilty of not ever wanting our children to fail. We may tell them that they are the greatest at everything they do—“You’re the best player on the team.” In our sports-obsessed culture, we may want to tell them that a loss is not their fault—“If the other players on the team would just play better, you wouldn’t lose.” I sometimes see this in parents who think their 9-year-old is going to be the next LeBron James, Derek Jeter or Mia Hamm. The fact of the matter, however, is that we don’t know what will happen over time, how they will develop, or even if they will want to play when they get older. And all of the best players learned how to lose at some point in their careers.

With that in mind, here are some lessons that our children can learn from losing at sports if we as parents will only let them:

  1. Humility. I’ll never forget my days of playing basketball in elementary school. My team, which basically stayed intact for a few years, lost every game for three seasons. I would go to basketball camps in the summers where the coaches would ask about our best basketball moment. I really didn’t have one. I had to learn that humility is a part of life. Everything was not going to be a success. I had to recognize that other players were better than me. And that is perfectly acceptable. Our culture has forgotten the virtue of humility, but it is a biblical concept we must instill in our children. In 1 Peter 5:5b, we read, “And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
  2. Perseverance. The hardest part of losing is getting back on the field to try again, especially if there is a pattern of losing. Thankfully for my daughter’s team, they have not succumbed to the dark clouds of expecting to lose every game. During each practice, they are working on winning attitudes, skills and strategies. This teaches them to persevere through the difficult times. Let’s face it, life will have its difficulties in both childhood and adulthood. For most people, the challenges of adulthood will overshadow the difficulties of childhood. However, our children can learn the virtue of perseverance at an early age as they pick themselves up off the court or field after a loss and go out there again the next time. The lesson of perseverance also translates into our spiritual lives. Paul writes, “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance;and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope;and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3–5).
  3. Learn from your mistakes. I believe we do our children a great disservice when we ignore their mistakes on the field and place the blame for a loss on others. For that matter, winning in sports is rarely mistake-free. After a loss, we can help our children recognize their mistakes and failures and train them to correct those mistakes in the future. This takes a delicate balance. On one hand, parents can overemphasize the mistakes and convince a child that he is a complete failure. This is devastating to the heart of the child. At the same time, we must not ignore mistakes. When we learn to strike this balance, we can teach our children a valuable life lesson. Mistakes are a part of life, but constantly repeating the same mistakes will only prove to make life harder. We encounter this same truth spiritually with sin. In 1 John 1:9, we read, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” However, this does not give us license to go on sinning. We see such an admonitions in Romans 6:1–2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” We also need to learn from our spiritual mistakes by repenting and changing our behavior.
  4. Success requires hard work. One of the difficulties with youth sports is that physical development takes place at different rates. During one season, your 11-year-old may be bigger, faster and stronger than the rest of the kids in the league. Success will come easily for her. But the next season, the rest of the players may have caught or even surpassed her, and success is no longer simple. By the time we reach adulthood, physical development is no longer the key to success; instead, we must put in the work necessary to succeed. When children lose in sports, we should motivate them to work hard. They need to learn that success in life does not come without hard work. The best athletes in the world toil day after day in the gym and at practice to hone their craft and stay ahead of the competition. The challenge for us as parents is not to let success, or winning, become the ultimate goal. Scripture gives us great insight into what our real goal should be: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). May we teach our children that true success comes from honoring God in all our work.

As I sit on the sideline for my daughter’s next game, I want to be prepared to help her learn the lessons that come her way whether she wins or loses. I will certainly cheer for her team to win and overcome the early season losses. There are also great lessons for her to learn in winning. The lessons from winning are often more fun to teach, but the lessons from losing are truly skills for the rest of life.