4 Things to Remember When Your Kid Loses

  by Ben Sasse

I’ve been chewing on this photo for days – it’s amazing.** Check it out.

Winners' dogpile; loser's pain. Photo by Curt Hineline. Originally posted at https://www.facebook.com/sassefornebraska/photos/a.212619278903243.1073741828.207425149422656/748972235267942/?type=3&theater

Like the old lead-in voice to ABC sports broadcasts, it captures both “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” There is so much joy in that center-court dog-pile – the last-second shot that propelled Ponca High to an overtime victory in the district championship and thus a life-changing trip to the state tournament. Wow.

But the image I can’t get out of my mind is the kid trying to pull her jersey over her face. That’s the leading scorer from Oakland-Craig High School – her season now over.

Part of why I can’t look away from her tears is because I know the family – and they’re incredible. I haven’t spoken to the parents since they lost, but I am certain of two things: 1) This game surely still hurts; and 2) Merritt and Dannika (the dad and mom) will know how to use this moment to help their daughter grow.

As the son of a Nebraska football and wrestling coach, my heart still pounds every Thursday and Friday morning in February and March as new championship weekends kick off. I love the drama. Our championships in swimming and diving, wrestling, and girls’ basketball have just wrapped up. Boys’ hoops tips off today. It’s a special weekend—teams across our state, from big schools in Omaha and from schools with tiny home gyms straight out of the movie Hoosiers, have all earned the right to come play dramatic games in Lincoln. It all comes down to this. One and done. Win or go home.

By late Saturday night, all but of a few of those teams will have lost, and a whole lot of kids will head home with their dreams dashed. It hurts. There will be a bunch of heartbreaking photos of kids who left it all out there. This is the tough side of sports.

…But what a huge opportunity you have, moms and dads, with your little “losers.” Don’t miss it this weekend.

Melissa (my wife) and I have been talking about this photo — and how probably the most important thing we ever learned from sports was the gift of losing, horrible though it felt. We often — and rightly! — spend a ton of time pursuing victory and celebrating winners. But Melissa and I have been comparing notes on the opportunities on the other side of the coin, when our kids experience the heartbreak.

As parents, what we say to our kids in those moments will have far greater impact than anything they would have learned from a dog-pile at center court. There’s more character-building opportunity in the scar tissue of the loss than there ever will be in the jubilation of the win.

So to the moms and dads driving to Lincoln this morning, here are four quick thoughts on the parenting challenge that awaits if your kid loses tonight or tomorrow or Saturday.

1. Don’t deflect the blame.

So often, the sweaty uniform hasn’t hit the laundry basket yet, and we’re scrambling to ease the pain of defeat by letting them blame other factors—“my teammate missed a free throw, coach called the wrong play, the third leg of the relay fell behind, the other guys played dirty, the ref blew a key call.”

Instead, encourage your kid to show gratitude to the coaches for a great season (and even thank those pesky folks in the black and white stripes). Extend a hand to a teammate who also feels crushed, pull him up off the floor or mat, pull her out of the pool. This is how we teach our kids to care for the hearts of others, even when their own hearts are breaking. This may be the first time in life that your child has ever been required to do this — but sadly, in this vale of tears, we parents know it won’t be the last.

2. Help your kid admit that, for today, the other player was better.

My dad was my wrestling coach, and I was fortunate to win a whole lot more than I lost. But today, those losses seem so much, much more important. My dad’s words still ring in my ears thirty years later that one of the things that makes this sport unique is there is absolutely nowhere to hide. The ball can’t bounce the wrong way; no one else can take the shot; there aren’t many gray-area judgment calls like interior line holding in football. You battle one-on-one, and when it’s over, you shake your opponent’s hand. You stand next to him as the referee raises his arm high in victory – over your head, in front of the whole gym. You gotta look him in the eye, and give him his due. For the 90% of you who won’t have a kid cutting down nets or raising up hardware Saturday, your gift to him is to encourage him to hold his head up and offer the other guys a “good game” with the sincerity of a man, not the begrudging of a boy.

3. Give them a minute to lick their own wounds; don’t immediately try to make them feel better about tomorrow.

I spoke with a mom from Blair last weekend who asked me to share words of comfort with her son. He’d just lost his shot at state with an unexpected disqualification on the final day. She wanted me to let him know that it’s not always going to hurt this much, and I did. She was surely right — it won’t hurt like this forever, and our kids need to know that.

But thinking about it later, maybe this never-before-known ache in his gut shouldn’t be too quickly mended. She said it was the worst thing they’d ever experienced.

There’s opportunity in that. Perhaps when we let our kids experience this pain, that’s when change happens. This is where the learning occurs, when character development becomes more important than winning or losing.

If this seems heartless, think of it this way: While it tears you up to watch your child reach for a dream and fall short, know that soon, scar tissue will begin to cover these fresh wounds.

This is GOOD scar tissue. The growth happening underneath these scars is precious, and will serve your son or daughter well. From this experience, your child will be able to acknowledge the success of others, even at personal cost. Your child will know what it means to work on a team to the benefit of others before self, what it means to take direction, to accept responsibilities, and to put forth their very best, leaving it all on the field/court/mat.

And your kids will know how to respond when even their best isn’t enough. All this happens to our kids so the next day, they pick up the ball, and head back to the gym. Working hard, getting better with that dream still alive.

Kids who can get knocked down like that and get back up are ready for all that life will throw at them. And isn’t that really the point of all this? To get our kids ready for real adversity?

4. Oh, and hug them like crazy.

Know that none of what you say to your child in those first moments matters as much as what you do. In those very first moments, when the agony of defeat is washing all over them, just grab your kids and hold on tight. Tell them you love them. Tell them the love is unconditional. Tell ‘em you’re proud.

This is your job. And you’ll never have a more important calling.

Enjoy the games everyone.

**Congrats to photographer Curt Hineline (of the Oakland Independent) on this epic shot.

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This article was originally posted here, and we’ve re-posted it with permission. Senator Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult, is a (soon-to-be-reviewed) dadcraft Favorite.

Post’s banner photo by Penywise, used via Morguefile license.