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Winning Is(nt) Everything

This tennis player should have trained harder before losing game, set and match.

Whenever I speak to youth sports communities (parents, athletes, coaches, staff) the subject of winning always comes up. Do I think everyone should get a trophy? How important is winning? How do we teach our youth to win and lose gracefully? This is a difficult subject to address as feelings about winning and losing are deeply connected to our beliefs and values which are often quite different. I discuss this important issue, as always from the perspective of relationships, identity, and culture (see my bio for overview of this perspective).

First, we must establish context by considering how American mainstream culture views winning. In our society, it is impossible to sell a child on the idea that winning doesn’t matter. Even if it doesn’t matter in your home/family, everything in our popular and political culture tells us that the only thing that matters is winning, being the best, and doing whatever it takes to win. Especially in sports! In our culture, every aspect of life is a competition…best job, best looks, best home/car/toys, and yes best kids. One of the most unfortunate aspects of a competitive culture is how we (can) attach our worth to our children’s achievements, looks, intelligence, and skills. But before we get to that (see Youth Sports: Are You Too Invested?) let’s talk about how this culture of winning creates a whole lot of losers.

In the movie Talladega Nights, Reese Bobby tells his son “If you’re not first, you’re last.” This view of winning is pervasive within our culture. The problem is that our structure of competition means there are only a few select winners and a whole lot of losers. The problem is that losing and failure are an important part of growth, success, and life. If we teach our children to only be happy as number one and disappointed by anything less, we are setting our children and our entire society up to be frustrated, angry, and unhappy people. Look around, you will see these people everywhere. We can’t all be number one, we can’t win all the time, and sometimes the best person doesn’t win.

I don’t believe everyone should get a trophy, because that’s not the way our world works. But we can all strive to be winners in all aspects of life. If you really want sports to be a positive, character building experience for your child and family, teach them that winning is/nt everything. Talk to them about the importance we place on winning in our society and that striving to be the best and doing your best are not synonymous with “being the best.” There are many who cheat, lie, hurt, and exploit their way to the top and unfortunately we still celebrate them as “winners.”

Winning should be defined as working hard, giving your all, playing with dignity and honor so that when you walk away from competition in sport and in life you know you were at your personal best; which may or may not equate to number one. Winners know how to win and lose with grace, which means showing respect to those who shared that competitive space and appreciating everyone who contributed to making that space of competition possible (from competitors to officials to sponsors to people doing laundry). For me, real winning means knowing without a doubt that you did not compromise your integrity to win and sometimes that means forgoing a trophy. In an 80s movie about high-school soccer called Ladybugs, Rodney Dangerfield field says to an over-invested parent, “The best, the best…what good is being the best if it brings out the worst in you?”

Is sport participation bringing out the best in you and your family?

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