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In Youth Sports, Losing is for Champions
By KJ DELL'ANTONIA - March 6, 2012

March 6, 2012, 6:18 pm

In Youth Sports, Losing is for Champions

If you have a young hockey player, a skier, a hoops player or any other form of winter athlete, then you know it’s crunch time. “March madness” applies in more than just basketball. State tournaments are being played, state ski teams selected — and children (lots of them) are losing their last game or their last race of the year.

And as hard as it is, we parents should embrace, and even welcome, every single loss.

It’s the nature of the game (or the race, or the tournament) that there are more losers than winners. The former Olympic skier Edie Thys Morgan, who’s also a friend of mine, now coaches her two sons and a whole herd of other young skiers as they try for downhill glory. On her blog this month, she urges parents to give up on “secretly hoping for success every time.”

Ms. Thys knows that we know that “real progress is often a barely perceptible crawl,” and that we all want real success for our children in life, “not just a silly sporting event.” But she’s a parent, too, and she hears us, in our secret hearts — underneath all our outward insistence that winning isn’t everything — wishing our children could just “have the good days and put off the agony of defeat indefinitely, or at least until adulthood.”

I can say from experience that the fantasy of child stardom is not all it’s cracked up to be. The pros are, of course, an early sniff of glory and an instant endorphin hit of success. Up into my early teens I won every ski race I entered. I fell and got up, and won. My boots got stolen from the car so I borrowed a friend’s mother’s boots, and won. A big kid in ski boots stepped on my bare toes and broke them the day before a race, and the next day I won. You get the picture. Yay me.

But then one day, I didn’t win. And I kept not winning, like it was my new job, until it felt my world had crumbled. I had three close friends who resided solidly in my rear-view mirror during my young days of untrammeled fabulousness. All three of them scooted past me and made their ways onto the U.S. Ski Team while I ground my gears. They were teaching me the lesson I had taught them long ago: that sooner or later you’ll get your butt kicked, so you’d better know how to deal with it. I did not appreciate the lesson.

Ms. Thys dusted herself off and raced again, and again, and again, eventually to the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games. Now she’s watching her own young racers, and wondering which ones will have that drive — to lose, and then get up and compete again. It’s that, far more than winning, that makes a person a success.

Her whole post is well worth a read: she considers talking kids through a disappointment, and how the laudable principle of “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” can mask the value of disappointment, which “in itself isn’t such a bad thing. It means you have some skin in the game.”

From there, in this season of teams losing in the semifinals, kids falling in the last race and teams that never make the tournament at all, it’s a good plan to go on to consider the basketball player Mark Titus, who made the team at Ohio State and went on to spend four years warming the bench — which he turned into a successful blog, a book and a career as a sportswriter (he’s interviewed here for The Atlantic Monthly). Success, even in sports, doesn’t always look the way we think it will.

Most of our children won’t spend their lives in sports. Statistically, few will become professionals, or even play or compete in college. They’re destined for what those of us on the outside of sport might call the real world. And losing, as hard as it is on them (and on us), might just be better preparation for that.