Taking the Focus Off Winning

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05 Feb 2014

chessDear Adina, I have a question regarding my child. He is a sore loser. He is part of a chess club and keeps losing and wants to give up all the time. We try to gently push him, and encourage him to stay with it, (chess club is not the only thing he has given up on). I don’t know how to deal with this type of behavior. Any suggestions?

Thanks for your question.

Here are some ways to encourage your child in his extracurricular activities and promote good sportsmanship.

1. Children should be encouraged to try many activities:

I heard a well-known psychologist state the following piece of wisdom that changed my attitude towards my kids quitting karate, guitar, piano, drawing, baseball etc. She said that it is not a bad thing for your child to lose interest in activities. Trying new things out is what childhood is for and should be encouraged.

We can say, “You didn’t care for baseball, that’s too bad. I am glad you tried it. It is always important try new things.”

Most children have a hard time sticking to one activity for any length of time. The kids that can are truly talented. They can and do become superstars. Us regular people with regular kids need to be okay with the fact that our kids won’t be in the NBA playoffs or on Broadway. If that gets you down, or if you feel like you are doing your child a disservice, just look at the arrogance of LeBron James (we are a little bitter here in Cleveland about him) and the imprudence of Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan.

2. Look at your child’s natural talents:

Sometimes, as parents, we don’t think about what our children are good at but what is socially acceptable and cool. American culture highly values team sports for girls and for boys, drama and music. Again, I had to get over that with my own child and recognize the beauty of having a bookworm.

Does your son have a logical, mathematic mind? Is chess helping him cultivate his innate strengths? If not, maybe it is time to look for something else.

3. Help your child get real about his innate strengths:

Is your son trying to be someone who he is not? That is fine. It is part of the growing up process. Children like to try on different identities. You want to encourage him by saying things like, “I am glad you are trying different things and seeing what you like and don’t like. That is what childhood is for.” Using language like that may take the pressure off of him needing to win all the time. It can help put his extracurricular activities into perspective. Engaging in clubs, team sports and other activities is supposed to be fun, helping you to develop social networks and skills you wouldn’t ordinarily have the chance to develop.

It is a sad adult who doesn’t have a good sense of what his true abilities are and hasn’t had a chance to experiment and learn what he can specifically and uniquely contribute to society.

4. Take the focus off of winning and onto effort expended:

To help your child shift his focus off of winning, we want to avoid using evaluative praise like “good job” or superlatives like “you are the greatest” or “you are the smartest”. This type of encouragement is painful and counterproductive for children. I discuss this in depth in my “Parenting Simply” workshop. You want to use “Process Praise.” Your son needs to be praised for his effort and for trying. This will encourage him to try more. Not just with chess but with everything he does.

“Process praise” sounds like this:

“I see that you cleaned your bookshelves and made your bed. You are working towards getting your room cleaned. You are making an effort.” (Even if the rest of his room is a disaster.)

“This homework assignment is really frustrating you. Even though you are not looking forward to doing it, you have your book open and your pencils ready to go. You are putting in effort.”

“You saw the math problem and you sensed you were going to have trouble with it. You asked the teacher for some help. That was being resourceful.”

“When you played chess today, I saw you thinking about your moves very carefully. You did the best that you could and had an interesting strategy. You should be proud of the effort you showed in today’s game.”

5. Concentrate on what he does on a regular basis:

Instead of pointing out all the things he won’t follow through on, focus on the stuff he does stick to, like going to school everyday, finishing books, doing homework, finishing school projects, going to visit his Grandma every week, or keeping up his friendships. Nothing out of the ordinary- just the simple things that he does that shows he has staying power.

As for him being a sore loser, anytime you want to improve your kid’s behavior in one area, for example, from “sore loser” to “good sport,” you want to do the following:

A. Acknowledge his feelings and gently remind him of his accomplishments:

“It is hard to lose. It can make people feel very small. Sometimes it helps to think of the times you felt good about yourself. Remember when you helped Dad with raking their leaves when his back hurt, or the time you helped Grandma find her hearing aid? I don’t know if it helps to think about those things or to hear this from your mom, but you will always be a winner in my book!”

B. Look for opportunities to show him a new picture of himself:

“After your soccer game, I saw you give high fives to the players of the other team. That is not easy to do when the other team has won. You showed good sportsmanship.”

C. Put your child in situations where he can see himself differently:

“ You have to help Mikey, he has such a hard time when he loses his baseball games. You should see if you could talk to him and let him know that it is not all about winning but about having fun.”

d. Let your child overhear you saying something positive about him:

“ You should have seen Alex today. He was playing chess and making some very good moves (if you know about chess you can elaborate on what he actually did). In the end, he lost but he kept himself together and showed good sportsmanship. He didn’t let anyone know he was upset until he got into the car.”

Hope this helped.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.