When Should Kids Deal With Winning And Losing?

I got into fitness when I was in my late teens and still enjoy it now, but at school, apart from the brain-space I got from a bit of swimming or running, I loathed Physical Education (or PE as we called it back in Britain).  I dreaded it.  It felt like a ritual humiliation from start to finish.  Not only did I feel like I’d missed some key information from day one on how to actually play the team sports on the curriculum, but I felt lanky, awkward, clumsy and pretty useless.  Then, of course, there was the awful communal changing room. And PE was always a great opportunity for those with the biggest mouths, loudest voices and sharpest elbows to shine.

I’m doing my best not to let that rub off on my son. When he comes home worried about exactly the same things I used to – ‘Mummy, I just can’t throw the ball well… I don’t understand what to do… they’re all really good and I’m rubbish’ – I try to respond with assurance, confidence, and advice. I leave the practical training to my husband who is excellent at getting him on his feet and passing on skills to help him through. Still, I find it hard because I know how he feels and how he may never be at ease with fitness and sports the way it’s delivered at school.

I shall never forget his first ‘Sports Day’ back in the UK, aged just 5, how surprised I was by the competitiveness of it all and the distinct lack of ‘fun’ involved. The various races were all based on individual success or failure and involved skills many kids that age just wouldn’t have experience of. Then my boy, being the careful little guy he is, put his all into each race, most of the time coming in last, while the naturally gifted sporty kids just went for it (and good for them!), and the more cocky kids screwed the rules and downright cheated half the time!

I watched and felt helpless as I could see my son become more and more disheartened, I could see it in his body-language and on his face; this was becoming miserable for him. Then, horror of horrors, the sack race:  brightly-coloured cloth sacks for the kids to jump along in, what could be more fun? Wrong.  My son struggled to even get going and eventually fell over, feet tangled in the cloth, he couldn’t get up, the tears came and again, he was last. I knew how utterly crap my son was feeling by now and that given half the chance he’d have climbed out of the stinking thing and run as far away from the scene as possible. I wouldn’t have blamed him.

Maybe I should have tried to laugh about it with him at the end of the day, but he was really very sad: ‘Mummy, I came last in everything.  I didn’t win anything’, he was so upset. So was I. Yes, I know they are life lessons, dealing with losing, dealing with these challenges, but age 5? His first taste of organised sport? Was there nothing they could have organised that would have given each of the kids the chance to feel like they were achieving something good? At some point there needs to be some positive reinforcement to set self-esteem alight.

Last week I went to the swimming gala at my son’s school here in Doha and I got a real surprise (yes I know you’re probably shivering over there in the States – but it’s still boiling over here!)  I was not looking forward to it, I have to be honest, because I knew my son wasn’t. I was whole-heartedly supportive though and focused on the fact that this was something he loved to do, even though it was only in a relaxed, non-competitive way at the local pool. He’s starting swimming club next year.

The event was organised so that all the children were swimming for their four respective school house teams, which the kids love because it’s like Hogwarts all over. All of the races were relays, with 8 children in each team, 3 teams in each house.  So no matter how fast, slow, skilled or unskilled the swimmer, there were so many kids swimming and there was so much action and poolside support, that rarely was there focus on just one swimmer. Throughout the event, there was very little made of who was in the lead and each and every team was praised and encouraged.

If a team struggled or there was a swimmer who needed a bit of support from the PE staff nearby, the parents, kids and staff just cheered on and supported whoever needed it.  In the meantime, kids who wanted to grab a drink and get wrapped up in a towel could do so, while there was music playing so that others could dance and sing along, waving their little home-made banners. Extra points were awarded for the most enthusiastic / lively dancers or supporters.  The soundtrack included the Black Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, and every so often, some rousing (cheesy but great fun) rock anthem; Eye of the Tiger being most people’s favourite – I spotted my son playing the air guitar with his mates and later he giggled as he told me about it: what a great memory to have from a sports event!

At the end, the staff got us all – kids and parents – performing Mexican waves around the poolside, which the kids LOVED.  Then it was announced that the overall winner was actually my son’s house team – and seeing his little face proud and excited meant the world. Even if his team hadn’t won, I genuinely think he would have been pretty upbeat still as he clearly enjoyed the whole experience – it felt like a very well organised pool party!

I left feeling that this was how sports events at school should be! There’s time enough for facing life’s disappointments – plus kids have to deal with success and failure on a regular basis through the school day in tests and tasks.  Why knock the confidence of kids in something like sport early on?  Especially as so much outside enjoyment and release can come from it and how important physical exercise is.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this subject – what have your own and your kids’ experiences been?  Have you attended a school sports event that has either left you seething or left you elated and inspired?  Please, share away!

Nikki Newman, 36, from England, currently lives in Qatar, where she moved this year due to her husband’s work. A former teacher and proud mother of 7-year-old Oliver, she’s currently focusing on settling her family into their new lives, while also pursuing her passion for painting. To see Nikki’s work please go to: www.nikkinewmanart.com