By Sean McNamara, MD
No one likes to lose. Defeat is a terrible feeling, it can be so intense it hints at a depressive episode; feelings of worthlessness, low self esteem, even guilt. Life has pretty serious losses sometimes like losing a job, an all too common divorce, or the ultimate loss of a loved one. Those are all adult losses but kid losses can be devastating too. Remember dropping a melting ice cream cone after only two licks, or the tragic death of your 2-week-old prize goldfish from the fair. Some people handle adverse life events better than others and playing sports may have something to do with it.
It feels good to win, those victory endorphins are enough to get high on our own awesomeness sometimes. The challenge of competition and the suspense of outcome can be addicting, fueled by the possibility of another high. Our society places heavy emphasis on winning games or being the best at pretty much anything we do because we are very result oriented and reward driven. This is fine but there is a lot to be gained from losing too.
Learning how to lose a t-ball game at six years old makes losing the little league championship at twelve slightly more palatable. Good sportsmanship means we still line up and shake the other team’s hand, respect for our coach means we still listen to him tell us what a great season we played and most importantly tenacity means we still show up to try outs next season ready to win this time. Picture that same kid, maybe you, a few years later on the JV team sitting in the dugout most games and batting last, no chance of making varsity next season. So that’s it, baseball career over. Losing has taught you that it’s time to get better, only one requirement and it’s hard work. Physically, mentally, emotionally: straight up hard work. Weight room five days a week, batting cage three days a week, staying after school to get grades up, going to bed early when friends are out partying on the weekends. All of a sudden you’re the starting center fielder, batting .490 going in to the playoffs getting a few phone calls per week from college coaches. Boom. Doors are open. Not only or college but for life because no matter the level of competition, athletes who have learned to compete have unknowingly learned how to compete in life.
Collegiate student athletes are highly sought after successful professionals because the same attributes displayed on the field are present in every challenge they pursue. Achievement driven, team oriented, strong communication, resilience, and good work ethic are some examples. Job skills can be taught to anyone but these core attributes take years to master and are best taught in sports where winning and losing gets plenty of practice. Attributes are completely transferable across all aspects of life, professional and also personal. Difficult family times may require a strong leader and especially strong communicator. Being a loving significant other requires teamwork and sacrifice. Even when it’s a personal emotional struggle, learning to cope with loss as a kid makes it easier as an adult.
Bottom line is there is a lot that kids learn from winning and losing, but especially losing. Playing sports makes kids healthier, happier, smarter, friendlier, and ultimately might make them better people. So please encourage kids to play sports and don’t forget its ok for them to lose sometimes.
Sean McNamara, MD is a second year Family Medicine Resident in the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine