Mastering the Bigger Game

As published in The Rye Record on February 10, 2013
There’s a whole lotta winning going on.

Last weekend I met a high school basketball coach who told me, “We are not here to help your kids win. We are here to help them grow up.” I tensed the muscles in my arms to keep me from throwing them around this man. How did he get so wise? What if he had been around to coach a young Lance Armstrong? From what I’ve learned from the constant loop of Armstrong news on ESPN, the guy’s done enough winning. Maybe it’s time to grow up.

Before I lose you, because I too am sick of Lance’s story, I just want to ask why? Why would a person go to such lengths to keep up the charade of winning? I wonder if his problem is that he never learned how to lose. Losing isn’t really that big of a deal if you’ve done it a few times. I’ve had so much experience with losing that I could teach a seminar. There’s the initial disappointment, the chorus of “it’s not fair” and then the regrouping. You look around and see that the world is still spinning, that you are still the same person you were before the game. And you move on. But to someone who has never dismounted a bike without a trophy in his hand, losing might seem like the end of the world. It almost makes me feel bad for the guy.

It’s no secret that we live in a winning-obsessed culture. I recently saw a grown man at a basketball game jump into the air like an Alabama cheerleader when a child on the opposing team was injured on the court. He is an otherwise perfectly normal man, but the children watching heard the message loud and clear: winning is everything.

At the writing of this article, my 11-year-old son’s basketball team is undefeated. I’m not sure how he feels about it, but to me it seems like a lot of pressure. I just want to get the big loss out of the way so that we can move on with our lives. When you are undefeated, losing becomes something bigger than itself; it’s not just the loss of the game, it’s the loss of perfection.

We like to see our kids happy, and we do everything in our power to keep them winning and succeeding. We stop short of giving them steroids, but we hire tutors, check their homework, and write their papers. Someday they are going to leave and get jobs and have to manage things on their own. I wonder if a little losing might help soften the transition from school to life. Going into the playoffs undefeated is a lot of pressure. Going into life undefeated is probably terrifying.

If you want your kids to have a little experience in losing, try some games you can only win after losing a few times. One of my favorites is “The Morning Game.” The object is to get out of the house with all of the stuff you will need for the next six hours. If you forget your lunch-homework-library book, you lose. As a consolation prize, you learn life skills such as begging for a half-sandwich, making up excuses, and negotiating with the librarian. The player is disqualified from this game the instant his mother arrives at school with his forgotten items. The player who wins five days in a row has mastered a game that he will be playing every single day for the rest of his life.

Another good one’s called “Where Are My Cleats?” It involves two players, the younger of whom is looking for his or her cleats. The older player knows where they are (having previously lost the game called “Who’s Gonna Clean Up This House Every Day?”), but pretends not to. The older player keeps asking, “I don’t know, where do you keep them?” until the younger player finds them and decides that having a dedicated spot for the cleats would be a good idea. Both players will lose during the first few rounds, being late for practice and managing the crankiness of the other. But in the end, both will win. It’s a hoot!

There’s a part of me that wants to turn my kids into serious losers. The kind that knows how to say, “Sorry I’m late” and “Sorry, I forgot.” The kind that has to run extra laps, and leave the library without a new book. Medical science has proven that it’s impossible to die from such losses, but be warned — side effects may include dizziness, nausea, and growing up.