How to Lose & Not Feel Defeated

Ashley Merryman chimed in again recently in a NYTimes Op-Ed proclaiming “Losing Is Good For You” to continue dispelling the myths of “everyone’s a winner.” She spreads the good word about the power of losing to teach persistence and resilience.
“Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.” When children are praised for their “innate” abilities, traits over which they have no control, they tend to get flustered by difficulty, and are more likely to cheat than persevere and risk failure. When they are commended for their efforts and given feedback on skills they can grow, they’re more likely to develop a sense of agency, of power to enhance their skills through persistence.
“I could see you tried different ways to solve that math problem” becomes their inner voice of reward for contemplating, considering, trying, failing, and trying again. “I could see how hard you worked to support your teammate even when you didn’t have the ball.” We all build behavioral muscles (like willpower, persistence) in the brain with a mental workout like physical exercise builds muscles in our arms and legs.
When feedback is concrete (“I could see you were considering where to dribble around the defense”), specific (“when you lost the ball, you kept running to support your teammates”) and future-oriented (“we can practice your ball-handling so the ball will go where you want it to”), your child is more likely to keep at it, and less likely to give up. With this kind of feedback, your child might lose a game but your child need not feel defeated.
Merryman writes, “If I were a baseball coach, I would announce at the first meeting that there would be only three awards: Best Overall, Most Improved and Best Sportsmanship. Then I’d hand the kids a list of things they’d have to do to earn one of those trophies. They would know from the get-go that excellence, improvement, character and persistence were valued.”
Outlining expectations is essential. Giving clear, explicit goals, milestones and markers for children to pursue is golden. And doing so ahead of time, before the activity starts, each time the activity starts, primes them for achievement. They know what opportunities to look for, what behaviors to strive for. They’ll remember what didn’t pan out last time with some constructive review and positive reminders. They’ll go for it again knowing they’ve got the skills to practice and eventually achieve.