It is whether you win or lose…and it’s how you play the game.
I haven’t heard a parent say the original form of this phrase to their kid for a long time (it’s not whether you win or lose…), but I’m sure it’s still uttered every day. To me, this is unfortunate. Of course, what it means is that within a game, the score doesn’t matter, and who is designated the winner and loser doesn’t matter. What matters is that you play with good sportsmanship…basically that you follow the rules, and respect the opponents and whoever else is involved in the game, such as referees.
That way of thinking, mostly emerging with parents and their very young kids at athletic games…quickly scales, and has dire consequences for the society at large.
When I think about this, I come to the conclusion that it originates within parents who don’t want to let their children get hurt emotionally after a contest. I understand that. But it’s just prolonging the ability to learn from a loss. Picture a young child running over to Dad…sad look on her face…after a soccer game in which the score wasn’t kept (bad idea!). ‘We lost Dad!’ ‘Well, I’m not so sure,’ Dad replies… ‘I don’t know what the score was’ he says. Listen, Dad knows the score was something like 10 to 1…ok? ‘But Dad, we kept score as a team in our heads…and they got a lot more than us.’ Well, it’s not whether you win or lose…it’s how you played the game.’
No Dad…don’t say that. It does matter. And especially in that this ‘losing’ moment for your daughter is actually a perfectly set-up teaching moment for the both of you. It’s a great opportunity for you and your child to practice acknowledging, accepting, and working through a small-scale loss. We know that she’s going to have to deal with loss in the future…in and out of an athletic arena. Therefore, it’s wise to introduce the idea early, often…now!
Last year, I coached my daughter’s pre-school/kindergarten aged basketball team. It was at the very earliest level of development and play for these children. It was so fun…so fascinating to observe those children dealing with that experience. Some of them couldn’t even get the ball up to the hoop (which was set about 5 feet high), they couldn’t follow the strict rules of dribbling, not traveling, staying in bounds, etc. We did scrimmage the other 3 teams that were practicing in the gym though. At the end of every practice we would play against one of those teams for about 15 minutes. I heard some of the kids keeping score during the game. ‘It’s 3 to 1,’ they’d say after making a hoop. Or, ‘we’re losing 2 to zero!’ Immediately, I felt a little pressure, and I knew that at the end of this game, there would be a discussion about winning and losing. ‘What am I going to tell them?’ I wondered. The truth. Not surprisingly, the very first question quickly asked by a couple players when we huddled up after the game was, ‘did we win?’ I couldn’t say, ‘I think it was a tie,’ or ‘I’m not sure…but everyone played great!’ Couldn’t do that. I’d say, ‘yup, we won 5 to 3.’ Or, ‘No, we lost 6 to 2.’ Believe me, it totally changed the looks on these 4-6 year old faces, and their body language. They didn’t like losing. But, I’d lead them through quick discussions after they found out they won or lost, in order to help them understand why…and what they did to contribute to that…what they could do to win again, or to not lose next time.
I don’t like losing either. In fact, I am very competitive in games, and try to win every single one if possible. Even within the casual men’s league basketball I’ve played in over the years…I do not let the team I’m on lose easily. I give a full effort to help the team win. I don’t care if it’s darts, shooting pool, golf, ping pong, arcade games…anything. I’m going to try to kill.
Trying to win is meaningful. Regardless of what arena your playing in, having an aim to win, means you’re striving for excellence. That striving, that work and effort, that continual and consistent practice…makes you better at that game. It also builds characteristics that are then applied to other games you play within life. And of course sportsmanship is important. It’s crucial to follow the rules so that everyone you’re playing with will trust you and continue to play. You must respect the referees…or the rule enforcers…so that you’ll be ‘allowed’ to play. You must follow some common moral and ethical behaviors so that others will like to play with you…even if you do win…and so that you’ll be invited to play in a variety of other games.
And by the way, striving for excellence makes the players around you closer to excellence too (teammates and opponents). It’s known within sports that one of the best ways to get better yourself as a player, is to play against other players that are a level above you. It allows you to perform and practice your known and functional movements and structures, while also keeping you on the edge of comfort, and challenging all that you’re doing…encouraging you to improve on all of that so that you can keep up with the level just ahead of you.
This is also true within business…within relationships. Do you want the 5 people closest to you to always be trying to win and striving for excellence? Or do you want them to often be ‘ok’ with losing? Think about the effect that will have on you.
Do you want your kids to think everything is a tie…and receive participation trophies? Or do you want them to win respectfully with honor with honor and pride, and lose with emotion and then learning and growth?
Winning matters. Trying to win matters. And that means that there are going to be losers. That’s ok.