How Parents Can Help Their Children Deal With Losing

As kids start participating in sports, it is up to their parents to help guide them in the fine art of winning graciously and losing graciously.  Teaching healthy sportsmanship begins when a child is young.  Losing typically becomes an issue at around the age of four.  By this age children have acquired many more skills and abilities and begin to believe that they can “do it all.”  At some point reality will set in and children will begin to see that regardless of their newfound abilities, they still have a long way to go before reaching their full potential.

If your child is having trouble coping with losing, there are many strategies that you can implement to soften the blow.  Children need to understand that success and failure depend on more than just the outcome of the game.  The following tips can help:

1)    Praise the process, not the outcome.  Praise the effort, not the accomplishment: For example, if your son and his team won their hockey game, say something like “Wow, it was so nice to see how well you worked as a team!” as opposed to “That’s great!  You won!”  The first praise reinforces the idea that success includes playing and practicing your best, while the second praise implies that winning was all that mattered.
2)    Role model: Share stories of your own setbacks and losses and how you overcame them and dealt with it.  It’s also important in your day to day interactions with your kids to role model that it’s okay to make mistakes and lose.  For example, if you break a glass, regardless of how you really feel, in front of your kids say something like “what can you do, it’s no big deal.”  Another example is when parents play games with their children.  Often they let them win in order to boost their child’s self esteem.  But, that is also a good opportunity to show them how to lose and be a good sport.
3)    Play games of Chance: If your child is having trouble losing, try playing games of chance or luck rather than games of skill.  In doing so, losing is not a reflection of the child’s abilities, but rather just a case of bad luck.  Examples of games of chance are: Candy Land, Snakes and Ladders and Trouble.  Games of skill are: Chess, Checkers, Connect 4.
4)    Keep Track of Improvement: It’s important to focus on your child’s specific strengths and improvements.  Track the things your child is doing better in and make sure to praise them for it.
5)    Failure is quitting. Success is never giving up and doing your best: Your child needs to realize that success is about being positive, trying your best, working as a team and improving.  Failure isn’t losing.  Failure includes having a negative attitude, not listening to the coach, showing up late for games and practices and being a bad winner and loser.

Athletes need to be taught that each game can be a learning opportunity.  As long as they played hard, played as a team and showed improvement, then positive things can be taken away from a loss.  It’s not about winning and losing- it’s how you play the game.

Susan Lieberman is in private practice in Toronto as a family therapist and public speaker.  For more information, go online at or call 416-512-6356.

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