I don’t know anyone who wants to lose. I’m not talking about weight here. I’m talking about sports, contests, life. Everyone wants to win. And in that spirit of allowing everyone to win, we now have sports competitions where no scores are counted, no standings tabulated. That way, everyone gets to win. Or lose. Actually, in my experience, the only ones observing the no scoring rules are the parents. My kids always knew exactly who won or lost and by how many points.
While there is a place for non-competitive sports and games, I believe we do our kids a disservice by refusing to keep scores, by refusing to declare winners and losers. Many valuable lessons can only be understood through losing.
I reached this conclusion after watching my son play through a losing season. Dan’s height, strength and natural athleticism made him a dominant player throughout elementary school, no matter what sport he chose. In fifth grade, he began playing in a drafted, competitive basketball league. His first season was everything he’d hoped for. His coach knew the game and taught the techniques. Dan’s skills improved dramatically and he loved the competition and intensity of the league.
The next season, however, he landed on an inexperienced team with an inexperienced coach. Dan was unquestionably the best player on the team, and he worried about his skills deteriorating with no one to challenge him. His team’s lack of talent embarrassed him. Frustrated by his teammates’ inexperience, he seldom gave his best and instead played with the minimal effort required by this team. Dan’s lack of respect for his teammates spilled out of our private conversations onto the court in critical remarks and blaming. Before the first game arrived, he asked if he could quit. He hated losing, and this team seemed capable of little else.
We tried to help him see how quitting would affect his team. We discussed the merits of playing on a lousy team versus not playing at all. Nothing we said changed his mind.
One night at bedtime, I looked around at all the posters of Michael Jordan on Dan’s walls. We’d attended several Bulls games during their championship era. Now MJ hung in mid-air on Dan’s wall. On the opposite wall, His Airness held up four fingers, a championship ring sparkling on each one. An autographed picture stood proudly among the books and magazines about Michael that filled Dan’s shelves.
“How do you think Michael would handle this situation?” I asked.
Dan snorted. “Michael would never be on such a sorry team.”
“Maybe not, but he’s the best player on his team. No one else even comes close. Do you hear him complaining about his teammates?”
Dan shook his head.
“Do you think he criticizes their mistakes, or does he encourage them? Does he slack off because they’re not as good as he is? Or does he always play his best? Wouldn’t he try to motivate his teammates to play up to his level rather than playing down to theirs?”
Dan stared hard at the posters. I kissed him, ruffled his hair and turned to go. Just before closing the door, I heard him ask softly, “Do you love the game or do you love winning?” I recognized the quote from one of Michael’s books.
Dan decided he loved the game. He played hard all season…and lost every single game. But he discovered three things that he never would have learned on a winning team.
First, he learned was the importance of encouragement. In the first game, he passed the ball to a teammate who wasn’t paying attention. The ball hit the boy and bounced uselessly out of bounds. Dan stared at the floor, then walked over and lightly punched the boy’s shoulder. “Hang in there,” he said. “You’ll get it next time.”
The boy’s face showed obvious surprise. He’d expected the usual disgust and condemnation from Dan. He did catch the next pass, and no one could miss the glow of pride in his expression when Dan grinned at him and pumped his arm in the air.
All the boys responded to Dan’s encouragement. They worked harder, gaining confidence as their skills improved. Teams are not just a group of people in matching uniforms. Teams are built on relationships, and relationships are built on encouragement, not criticism.
My son also discovered he could go out and play his best no matter what others did. Playing with less talented players was no excuse for laziness. He learned to find personal satisfaction in knowing he played to the best of his God-given abilities every time he stepped onto the court.
Finally, Dan learned that teams win games, not individual players. One member can’t do it all. No matter how spectacular his moves or how many of his shots fell in, Dan couldn’t pull off a victory alone. He needed able teammates. Even Michael Jordan couldn’t win without Scottie Pippen and the rest of the Bulls around him.
He learned perseverance through losing every game, and that season turned into one of the most instructive times of his life.
I don’t like to lose. Many times, I’ve refused to get in the game because I don’t want to be embarrassed by losing. But I’ve also learned the toughest times force me to grow the most. Losing isn’t fun, but sometimes, it’s the only way we learn how to win.