Sporting nature: Kids in Hong Kong, and elsewhere, need to learn how to lose

Kelly Yang says we deny children an important, character-building lesson when we insist that everyone is a winner all the time. Far better to let them practise resilience than coddle them with delusions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 11:28am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 11:28am

Recently, I got a phone call from my son’s soccer coach. My son’s team didn’t win the tournament but the coach called to ask whether I’d like to order a trophy for my son anyway.

I didn’t know what to say. Sure, I’d heard of participation prizes, but I was expecting little pencils and erasers, not full-blown trophies that looked exactly like the ones the real winners got.

These days, even the term “winner” could land you in hot water in some circles. Today, it’s all about every child at his or her own pace and how we’re all “winners”. It’s little wonder that coaches now hand out awards like sweets, and trophies and awards are an estimated US$3-billion-a-year industry in North America alone. And while I understand that, in things like art perhaps there’s no clear winner, we’re talking about sports here; clearly not every child is a winner in every sport.

When I was a kid, I wasn’t very good at sports. In fact, I don’t remember winning a single game in any sport. That’s because I have the hand-to-eye coordination of a chicken.

A child who loses with grace is 10 times more impressive than a child who wins with smugness

I’m the type of person who manages to fall over even when I’m just walking on a perfectly flat surface. And, while growing up it was painful to always be the last person to be picked for the team, I did learn something really valuable , too – how to lose.

Learning how to lose, I think, is one the most important lessons for a child, perhaps even more so than how to win. It teaches resilience, perseverance and patience. From losing constantly in sports, I learned that things don’t always go my way. And that’s OK. And to pick myself back up.

Losing builds character and grit in a way that nothing else can, which is why a child who loses with grace is 10 times more impressive than a child who wins with smugness.

Yet, fewer and fewer kids these days are learning this lesson. According to a study commissioned by Marylebone Cricket Club and the Chance to Shine charity, most schoolchildren would be “relieved or not bothered” if competitive games were eliminated.

Schools have started to do just that – banning playground games like tag because, apparently, being “it” is simply too much for some kids.

At a recent parent-teacher conference at my son’s school, the PE teacher told me somewhat reluctantly that the game I used to love to play in school – dodge ball – is no longer a playground staple. That’s because it’s a “human target game”, or a game in which the objective is to get other people out . “You mean like baseball?” I asked. Or lots of other things in life – like business, for that matter.

READ MORE: Let Hong Kong children enjoy the benefits of sport and exercise

I understand that losing is discouraging and that kids sometimes need to experience the euphoric rush of winning in order to gain confidence, but I worry that, in our rush to coddle our kids, we could be doing more harm than good. Could we be doing them a disservice?

After a decade of handholding and helicopter parenting, many US universities are now reporting seeing a lack of resilience among students. This is the case even at the top universities, where students, so used to being top of their class in high school, suddenly realise they’re no longer the best. That realisation can be heartbreaking and sometimes even lethal.

I thought of all this as I listened to my son’s coach on the phone, describing the beautiful trophy I could order. “No thanks,” I told him.

I’ll take losing the old fashioned way – no trophy, but with a good dose of resilience.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.