You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out,
but you gotta suit up for them all.” ~ attributed to Satchel Paige

Winners and losers

I spent nine years on the Shenandoah County School Board, and during that time, I read all I could about education and what experts thought they knew about the best way to educate children. I found myself butting up against our society’s bias towards sports being more important than academics, and that in turn caused me to think about the unfortunate assumption embedded in all sports: There are winners and losers and not much in between. The way coaches choose to train their kids to handle winning and losing has the potential to provide valuable life lessons.

It can also scar them forever.

Well-intentioned mistakes

In an effort to help children avoid the pain of losing, many well-intentioned parents, teachers, and volunteers have gone too far in the opposite direction to find ways to make sure no child comes away from an event without some sort of recognition or trophy. Instead of awarding just one trophy to the winner, there is a tendency (fueled, undoubtedly by companies that make trophies and awards – a $3 billion industry) to offer trophies for the smallest things, including simply participation. According to recent research, this has created an unrealistic expectation on the part of children and can, in fact, set them up for being devastated or deeply disappointed later in life when they are not recognized for every little thing they do.

The damage caused by nonstop recognition

Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson have studied and written extensively on the effects of praise and rewards on kids. “The science is clear,” Merryman reports in a recent New York  Times article entitled “Losing is Good for You.”  “Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.” She cites the work of psychologist Carol Dweck and experiments by the researchers Bradley Morris and Shannon Zentall, who all found that praising children indiscriminately could lead to unrealistic expectations, severe reactions to later failure, and eventually to being unwilling to try.

Merryman poses an excellent question about another downside of too much praise and recognition: “If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?” I agree completely with her conclusion: “When children make mistakes, our job should not be to spin those losses into decorated victories. Instead, our job is to help kids overcome setbacks, to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed.”

You have to learn how to lose

If adults haven’t learned early in their lives to meet success and failure with equanimity, they face even greater problems for themselves and those with whom they work.  Employers and human resources professionals complain about the “Generation Me” in which many individuals need to be praised or given positive feedback so often it becomes a significant chore for their manager or supervisor.

And what if the need for approval is so great it keeps people from taking risks or trying new things for fear they won’t succeed? Fear of failure is a well-recognized barrier for people of any age to achieving their true potential. I know I have occasionally passed up on opportunities using one flimsy excuse or another. An early-in-life example was turning down a full scholarship to a graduate program at Harvard Medical School. In retrospect, I believe I was just scared I might not make it at Harvard—that I would embarrass myself or my loved ones. I’m suspicious that fear of failure has been at the root of more decisions than I care to admit.

I don’t believe in wasting time on regret over decisions made in the past. But I do believe in learning to understand yourself and human nature well enough to avoid making self-limiting choices and to be better able to help your children, grandchildren, or anyone you’re in a position to influence.

Sometimes losing is winning

Losing is an important part of living, and it makes us appreciate even more those sweet moments when our efforts result in a successful outcome. I believe learning how to lose, and teaching our children and grandchildren how to lose gracefully, is a winning strategy for success in life.

Your thoughts? Please share below.

Photo credit: “Win versus Lose” by Karen Roach via BigStockPhoto, my favorite source for stock photography
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