“Learning to Lose”

I have played hundreds of board and card games as the oldest child of four, as a mother and as a grandmother. In all of these activities there is a winner and often several losers. One of the truths I have observed over the years is that we have to learn how to lose. Or, more importantly, how not to be what my father always referred to as a “sore loser.”

We learn this skill slowly. Usually we “let” the littlest players win as they learn a new game. But after a while we begin to let them lose occasionally if that is how the game is going. When that happens we are sure to hear a variety of complaints, most often “that isn’t fair” or “you cheated.” No one likes the feeling of losing a game and the easiest way to stop those feelings is to blame the other players.

But over time we are taught, in a variety of settings, how to gracefully lose. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t upset, nor does it always quiet the inner voice saying “it isn’t fair,” but generally we learn to be “good sports.” We are expected to congratulate others on winning and to nurse our losses in private. At the end of many athletic games, for example, the two teams line up and the players shake each other’s hands.

Sad to say, some adults have never learned how to lose. When I see them I think of my brother throwing the Sorry board across the room when he was five years old and losing to me. And I wish someone would hug them and let them know they will be all right. Losing doesn’t make us losers. That’s another truth I learned when young.

41 thoughts on ““Learning to Lose”

  1. In the UK, primary schools have stopped holding sports days with actual sports in favour of activities where nobody loses. Levelling up the playing field is one thing, but teaching children that there are no losers is a lie at best. I believe the trend towards non-competitive ‘sports’ in schools is a mistake that generations will suffer from. We all need to learn how to cope with losing.

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    1. While I agree that it’s important to lose gracefully, I changed my feelings about participation trophies/ribbons over the years. When we teach kids that winning at a thing is more important than doing a thing, we discourage them from practicing and improving. No one sits down at a piano during their first lesson and plays Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 … but it is worth praising the child who manages to bang out Mozart’s “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” during that first lesson all the same.

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      1. Of course it is!
        That is to do with striving and individuality and having different skills. Because competition has been wrongly dealt with in the past doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate that, but we shouldn’t deny its existence.
        I believe that’s a different issue from letting children experience coming second, third, fourth, and even last (as I generally did in sports) and accepting that this will happen in their life and understanding it isn’t the end of the world.

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        1. I think there is probably a contest for everyone. We have very different skills beyond athletic ones. I would never win pie eating contest or a race, but I did win a speech contest.

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  2. Sadly some people have never learned to lose, even denying that such a possibility could ever apply to them. But there’s no time like the present to learn and I’m praying that Trump can find a way to accept loss and move on for the sake of our country.

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  3. I remember playing cards for money with my dad and my uncle. It wasn’t a lot of money, and I got excited when I won a few hands. I was only around ten years of age, and playing with money given to me for my birthday. They had cautioned me that I might lose, but I wanted to play. When I eventually lost almost four shillings (just over two dollars in today’s values) I got very upset, and accused them of cheating. My dad was stern with me, and told me that I had to learn to lose in life, in order to be a man.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  4. Elizabeth, I cannot tell you how important this post is. Losing has been “lost” with children since the 80’s. That’s when schools introduced games where no child was a loser. It was terrible, and it grew a generation of kids who don’t know how to lose. I remember. All I could think about was the absence of life skills. And, that’s what we need to teach children. When I play Sorry with children, following the rules is as important as learning how to lose.

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  5. Reblogged this on A Teacher's Reflections and commented:
    Losing doesn’t make us losers. Well said, Elizabeth. When children learn how to lose they develop life skills. A hug along the way lets them know it’s okay. Elizabeth’s post is spot on. I play Sorry with children all the time, and it an opportunity to teach those life skills.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Learning to lose with grace is almost as important as learning to win with grace. Biden is winning with grace and tRump never had any to begin with.

    That said, I’m not sure that the analogy with reducing competition in school athletics (and academics for that matter) works here. At least for me. Competition in learning is always counter-productive and does more harm than good. A few winners? At the expense of what? Of whom? Recognition matters but this race for competitive achievement is very harmful. Ditto grades and awards. iI the goal is love of learning then these just get in the way.

    If the prime goal of athletics and sports in school is winners and losers then we are guaranteed a rotten outcome in terms of participation, enjoyment, and engagement. If the goal is engagement with lifeline enjoyment of games and physical activity then we will minimize the winner/loser focus.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I loved your thoughtful answer and have begun to respond in my post today. I think when I went to school the pressure was much less to win. I am helped by your comment.

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  7. After reading this post and the comments it seems there is a fine line we have always taught ours that if they win it is a bonus but if they lose and can honestly say I have done my best that is ok as well…:)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Learning to win and lose with grace is equally important. Where I’ve especially seen a change is in athletics, with athletes trash-talking constantly. Now it seems that many athletes spend far too much time chirping at their opponents.

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  9. “Losing doesn’t make us losers.” Thank you!💝
    When we were children, my mother tried to teach us not be be “sore losers,” like your father said. My sister had a competitive streak and ALWAYS fumed when she lost. I was less competitive, and so I always appeared to be a gracious loser. In adulthood, she used her competitiveness to achieve successes, and I have sometimes wished to borrow some of her competitive spirit.

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  10. Thank you for this important post, Elizabeth. This is an important lesson/reminder. The every act of losing provides us with greater insights than if we win repeatedly. Learning how to handle it — can also build character, for life. Determination, Resilience, Grace: these are essential life skills.
    Thanks again.

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  11. Interesting post and comments….I was bought up to believe I would never even make it through to teen years, so why bother even trying to win at anything – disabled and loner childhood with very elderly parents. More recently in my 60s realised how poorly things were for me, then.

    Or course, over the decades I have had wins but I’ve had a huge amount of loses, not just from sports. Actually sports off my radar due to my ankle and hand disabilities…

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