As early as age 3 or 4, children are introduced to basic sports skills such as throwing and catching. By 6 or 7, those who haven’t mastered these and other skills may already feel left behind — and left out, too.

Because our mainstream culture values competition, first-graders know who’s the best and the worst at sports in their class. Catching up can already seem hopeless.

Yet when practicing these skills means extra time with a parent, a child is bound to feel heartened — as long as the focus is on having fun rather than on perfection. Parents need to take care that their eagerness doesn’t backfire and become more pressure for the child.

Children younger than 4 years are often only vaguely interested in winning. They are usually much more taken with the process of chasing after a ball, or of trying to figure out where to go next than with the end result.

But by 4 and 5, when children are becoming aware of the differences between them, winning and losing take on new meaning. The “winners” and “losers” draw attention for their differences: “Who’s the strongest? Who’s the wimpiest?”

At 5 and 6, children are more aware of their limitations. Being the best, and winning, is a valued way of making up for such realities. Losing is always tough to face. Young children are bound to deny it, shrieking “We won, we won!” — even if they didn’t.

When the sad fact of losing can no longer be denied, they may dissolve into a puddle of tears. Or they may explode: “You cheated!”

A special challenge of team sports is learning to share the glory and the blame. It’s a struggle for children of any age not to vent frustration against teammates and instead to focus on encouragement.

Parents can help children handle their frustration without hurting the other kids. After a soccer defeat, for example, some children may want to kick the ball as hard as they can at the goal, over and over, until they’re spent.

Others will collapse into silliness, chasing after each other, tumbling on the ground. Let them. But if they gang up on a teammate, let them know that they are exhibiting poor sportsmanship: “Sure everyone’s upset about losing. But we’re a team and we’ve got to stick together. That’s part of playing the game.”


You can help your child face defeat gracefully, and to learn from it, with your reactions.

Firm expectations: Lying and cheating are no way to deal with losing.

Control, regained: Don’t expect a child to be ready to learn when he’s still overwhelmed with emotion. He may need help calming himself down before he can listen.

Empathy: Acknowledge and accept the child’s feelings of anger, frustration and self-doubt. But reserve your right to draw conclusions that are different from his (“You may think you’re no good, but that’s your opinion, not mine”) and to prohibit unacceptable actions that might arise from these feelings.

Face-saving: Help your child look for ways to understand the failures so they don’t devastate his self-esteem. For example, “It’s not just up to you as the goalie to protect the goal. The whole team is responsible for that.”

Honest appraisal: To a child who insists “I’m no good,” a parent might reply, “I disagree with you about that. You have skills, and maybe you are ready to think about some that you would like to improve.” Children need opportunities to learn to face their shortcomings. Covering them up just leaves the child alone with them. False praise won’t help and risks teaching a child not to trust those who offer it.

Awareness: At first, the moment of defeat can seem like the end of the world. But eventually it is forgotten. You can help your child become aware of how these first reactions gradually shift.

Encouragement: Reassure your child that he can get back on track. Let him know that he needn’t be so hard on himself. n Personal responsibility: Your child needs to know that handling defeat is his job, not yours. So is pulling himself together again so that he can face the next challenge.

Remind your child that, whether he wins or loses, the point of the game is to have fun.

(This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger and Aggression,” by T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua D. Sparrow, published by Da Capo Press.)

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