Viewpoint: Losing Gracefully Is an Art to be Learned

By Sue Pascoe
Editor

In my spare time, I enjoy refereeing soccer at the little-kid level and on the high school level and in between. But one incident that happened this past spring keeps reverberating in my head.

It was a U12 girls championship game at a recreational league in Mar Vista. Team A had a hand ball just outside the box in the first half and Team B used that as an opportunity to score. About 10 minutes later, Team B scored when a player timed a pass that allowed her to score. The opposing coach started shouting “off-sides,” but it wasn’t—if you know the rule.

At the end of the match the score was tied 1-1 and it went to penalty kicks. Team A made three penalty kicks; Team B didn’t make any. Team B lost.

One of the Team B players, and her mother, came up to me as I was leaving. “That was offside!” the girl screamed. “We should have won.” I tried to explain the off-side rule to her, but she didn’t want to hear it. She just wanted me to reverse a decision, so they could be champions.

“I hate soccer. You made this awful for me. I never want to play again!” the young girl said, as she started sobbing. Her mother hugged her, while aiming her glares at me.

I’d like to say that this reaction by the mother (and her daughter) is unusual, but it’s not. The parents in club soccer, where they pay lots of money in hopes that their child will earn a college scholarship, also do not take losses lightly. But then, we’re a nation that does not like to lose. I get that; I’m a fierce competitor, even in Scrabble against my 86-year-old mother. I don’t like to lose—ever, in any game—and life is a game.

But Mom did teach me the proper way to lose. It was an important lesson, because life, like Las Vegas, is mostly stacked against us winning all the time. That leaves us doing what we’re doing just because we like to do it, not because we’re winning.

When I was in fourth grade, it was so important to me to be the class representative in a county-wide speaking contest. I wanted the all-coveted superior rating and a blue ribbon. Unfortunately, my classmate Ellen Huckins (and horrors, my best friend), took first and I was the runner-up. I went sobbing to my mom about the unfairness and how the judges should have picked me instead.

She told me that I first needed to congratulate my best friend for winning. Then she asked me what I could have done differently. I told her “nothing” because I was good. She had a different take. She said that Ellen was better rehearsed, and that if I had practiced more, there might have been a different outcome. At home, I did my piece for her several times after the contest, and I did get better. She had been right.

I’m not so sure we as a nation have done the right thing in raising this latest generation of kids, who are now in their 20s and 30s. The trophies and prizes for participation in sports, library and art contests, still stack my kids’ shelves, waiting to be thrown out some day.

Did we give out awards because we were too afraid that our children might be upset by losing? Were we so worried about self-esteem that we were afraid to let our kids lose—and learn how to do it gracefully?

Psychology Today summarized self-esteem, explaining that “possessing little self-regard can lead people to become depressed, to fall short of their potential, or to tolerate abusive situations and relationships. But on the other hand, too much self-love results in an off-putting sense of entitlement and an inability to learn from failures.”

I have three young adult children. Looking back, I wished there had been more times when they didn’t receive prizes for just showing up. I think there’s something to be learned from resiliency and the ability to keep going, even if something doesn’t work out the way you think it should.

There are lessons to be learned from losing: important ones. You learn how to be gracious. Even top athletes shake hands after a well-fought match or game. You learn how to congratulate your top competitor, knowing you will pick yourself up and try again because you really love what you are doing, and you want to be tops. You learn how to improve, you learn determination. Why we decided our kids didn’t need that, I still don’t understand.

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