The more I get to know my son, W, the more I realize that being competitive is a part of his nature. I think thriving on the energy of competition can propel a person to amazing things, but when you are young it can be terrifying. As someone who is not very competitive, I used to look at competing very simplistically. Someone is a winner. Someone is a loser. The key ingredient I overlooked was good sportsmanship.
We all know the often trotted out adage, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” Is this a concept kids easily understand? What does that even mean: “How you play the game”? You can play the game to the best of your abilities and still lose. As parents we celebrate triumphs and victories, but how are we doing when our kid doesn’t come in first place or achieve the gold star?
It’s one thing to mumble, “Good game, good game, good game,” as you palm by your opponents after a game, but what happens next? How do we get our kids to the place where there is actually satisfaction in playing the game vs. winning the game? It’s a process my son and I have been working on.
1. Stop Racing to Be First
My son loves to be first. Many times I played into this. If he was dragging his feet to get ready for bed I would toss out, “First one upstairs is the winner!” His natural desire to be the winner would take over and he would sail past me on the stairs up to his room. I thought I was being clever racing him. Then I started to wonder if such a challenge was a set up that would have him always looking at tasks in life as a competition. I can’t expect W to simmer down with wanting to always win if I keep turning things into a game.
2. Play a Sport with No Winner
I know that down the road there are opportunities for students of karate to participate in matches to earn belts or trophies. Right now, that’s not our focus. W is learning how to stay focused in a large class and working on basic tenets of karate. He is only competing against his own skill-set.
One of the best things to come out of W’s karate lessons is the “Black Belt Leadership Card.” At the end of each class W’s sensei rewards students who have shown excellent self-directed behavior during the week. It’s up to the parents to make note of the good behaviors (like when W put away his breakfast dishes or helped out at church — all without being asked), and it’s such a blast to hear the lists read at the end of the lesson.
When the sensei calls W’s name he has to stand up and at attention. The sensei then reads W’s list of self-directed accomplishments and hands him a leadership card. All of the students in class take this part so seriously and seem genuinely to admire the work being shared.
3. Participate in Sports Activities to Learn the Game vs. Playing the Game
W’s first exposure to soccer happened during the early winter season when he played indoor soccer at our local YMCA. Several of the kids had been playing the sport for years and W was a total newbie. He quickly picked up some of the basic elements of the game, but I could tell not knowing all of the rules was frustrating. How could it not be?
I signed W up for a fundamentals of soccer camp that meets weekly during the month of April. He’s getting to experience outdoor soccer (cleats!) and learn elements of the game without the pressure of competing in a game. W is still pretty hard on himself during the camp, and he gets frustrated when he doesn’t immediately know how to do something. I’ve reminded him this is the perfect time not to know something because there are coaches who are there to guide him.
4. Watch Reality TV Shows with Eliminated Contestants
Seeing people lose gracefully is very helpful. W and I have a handful of reality TV shows we enjoy watching together. Two of our favorites, Master Chef Junior and The Amazing Race, show contestants being eliminated every week. As fans we get sad when some of our favorites leave a show, but there is a lot to be learned in watching the last interview with an ousted contestant. Usually they are thankful to have had the experience of the competition. Thankful to have learned something new. Thankful to have made new friends. This is a wonderful way to gracefully lose and seeing it every week is a helpful reminder.
5. Celebrate the Achievements of Others
A few months ago, when I picked W up from school and he started to tell me about something one of his friends did in class, it was usually followed by a, “It’s not fair!” He was all about how many stars or points his classmates got and I was annoyed by his emotional investment in it. I would tell him, “That kid is not MY kid. I don’t need to know what happened to him in school. I only want to know about your day.”
That came out of my mouth a few times before I actually heard my tone and my tone was awful. Yikes. Talk about being a bad sport!
Now when I pick W up and he tells me about his friends I say, “That’s great! She must have been so proud!” A few times he has presented information about his day by saying, “I’m so happy for my friend. They got ten stars!”
Recognizing the achievement of others doesn’t take away the achievement of my kid. I know this. And yet by not turning the “It’s not fair!” attitude around to begin with, I wasn’t helping W learn how great it feels to celebrate the victory of your friends.
It may sound like a weird concept, but teaching my son how to lose has been one of the more rewarding moments of being his mom. Good sportsmanship isn’t something that comes naturally for everyone, especially not when every fiber of your being wants to be in the winner’s circle.