Behaviour & Emotions

How to talk about: Winning and losing

Parenting Place talking about winning and losing

If we’re honest, most of us don’t like losing. Kids are especially un-fond of it, and that’s okay. However, to hate it, dread it or to shy away from joining in because of a fear of losing – well, that’s not what we want for our kids. Most parents want their kids to get stuck in and participate, so some open and honest conversations about winning and losing can really help kids stay on track towards good sportsmanship and joining in for the love of the game.

Whether driving home from Saturday morning sport or watching New Zealand play Australia from the comfort of your couch, there are many great moments to talk to our kids about the big feelings that come hand-in-hand with competition. Feelings like exhilaration, joy and surprise. Feelings like disappointment, sadness and regret.

Talk about winning

Winning feels great and it’s understandable that kids love to take first place. We can celebrate our kids’ wins, absolutely, but we can also call out the gold in our children when we see them practising hard, doing their best and being a great team member. Ideally, we want to celebrate effort and fair play, not just trophies and ribbons. And that’s reflected in what we talk about.

We can also talk to our kids about what it means to win graciously – fist pumps and victory laps are nice, but so is shaking hands with the opposition and offering a simple but genuine ‘Great game” or “Well played”.

It's also helpful to practise this at home, encouraging siblings to cheer each other on and celebrate (or commiserate) alongside one another. Yes, that can be easier said than done, but it's worth persevering here. When one child wins something, honour their moment (the Red Plate is a handy tool here) and gently encourage their siblings to join in with a "Well done" or two.

Teach your kids to call out “Good shot” or “Great try” to the opposition as well as their teammates, and later, encourage them that you noticed their good sportsmanship and you’re proud of the way they cheer on others.

"You’re such a valuable team player – I saw how kind you were, and how you encouraged your friends. Looks like you had a great time today!"

Talk about losing

As Bandit Heeler told Bluey, "It's not exciting if you win all the time." There's truth in that statement, but kids may take a while to fully embrace it!

Losing is hard, and emotional. Children find it helpful to know that others experience similar feelings. Share your own stories about losing; how it felt and how you coped. Conversation like this helps our kids see that it is normal and okay to feel big feelings over a loss, and that we don’t need to run from those feelings or avoid them all together.

Help your child put words to their feelings, while also showing empathy:

  • “I remember feeling so frustrated when I missed a goal, and bit embarrassed too.”

  • “Losing feels disappointing, but that feeling doesn’t last forever.”

  • “I know you did your best and you can feel proud of trying so hard. That other team/opponent had a really great day today.”

Ideally, we want to celebrate effort and fair play, not just trophies and ribbons. And that’s reflected in what we talk about.

Product plate ceramic

Celebrate achievements with the Red Plate

Use the Red Plate to recognise achievements in your whānau. It’s a true honour, given at mealtimes, to celebrate an achievement, a new accomplishment or a birthday.

Grab yours today

Talk about something other than winning and losing

It also helps our kids to take the focus off winning and losing, and put it back on why we play in the first place.

Helpful ‘post-match’ questions could include:

  • “How did you feel out there on the court/field/floor today?”

  • “What did you enjoy most about the game?”

  • “Who do you think did a great job today?”

  • “Who tried really hard?”

  • “You’ve been doing a lot of training – what do you think you improved on today?”

Way to go, role models

Back to the couch. When watching elite athletes we can talk to our kids about the countless hours of training and focus they must have pushed through. We can talk about the full range of emotions experienced by athletes at the top of their game. Do competitors look nervous, worried, disappointed, elated? Ask your kids – can they relate to any of those feelings in their own sports and activities? Imagining what others might be going through is helpful for our kids as they process the reality that there can only be one winner in most competitions, so there has to be more to ‘giving it a go’ than simply playing to win.

Winning is super exciting, but there are actually more opportunities to learn when you don’t win first place. It is important that we teach our kids that winning isn’t everything and losing isn’t failing. Loss isn’t an end point; it's a step along the journey. Learning to accommodate disappointment and loss will help them to grow into confident, resilient adults.

Winning is super exciting, but there are actually more opportunities to learn when you don’t win first place.

Couch or side-line, it’s important us grown-ups model a healthy response to success, and also demonstrate to our kids how we accept losing as part of life. Keep your spectator commentary positive so kids learn how to be a good sport, encouraging others as well as being inspired by what they’re watching. Let them know that each person in the competition is valuable, whether they win or lose.

We want to help our kids remember why they play their chosen sport, and even why they said yes to another round of Monopoly Deal. We play for the love of it, for the enjoyment of the game, for the thrill of the chase. And from card games to AIMS Games, keeping score is one thing but having a good time is the best thing.

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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