Monday, November 08, 2010

Winning and Losing

I read an interesting article by Barry Rubin the other day:
My son is playing on a local soccer team which has lost every one of its games, often by humiliating scores. The coach is a nice guy, but seems an archetype of contemporary thinking: he tells the kids not to care about whether they win, puts players at any positions they want, and doesn’t listen to their suggestions.

He never criticizes a player or suggests how a player could do better. My son, bless him, once remarked to me: “How are you going to play better if nobody tells you what you’re doing wrong?” The coach just tells them how well they are playing. Even after an 8-0 defeat, he told them they’d played a great game.


Or am I right in thinking that sports should prepare children for life, competition, the desire to win, and an understanding that not every individual has the same level of skills? A central element in that world is rewarding those who do better, which also offers an incentive for them and others to strive, rather than thinking they merely need choose between becoming a government bureaucrat or dependent.


When the opportunity came to step in as coach for one game, I jumped at the chance to try an experiment. I’ve never coached a sport before, and am certainly no expert at soccer despite my son’s efforts. Still, I thought the next game could be won by simply placing players in the positions they merited, and motivating them to triumph.


They played harder, with a bit more pressure and a less equal share of personal glory than they’d ever done before. But after the victory, they were glowing and appreciative, amazed that they had actually won a game. Yes, winning and being allowed to give their best effort as a team was far more exciting and rewarding for them than being told they had done wonderfully by just showing up, that everyone should be treated equal as if there were no difference in talents, and that the results didn’t matter.

I really wonder how Mr. Rubin’s column would have turned out if his team had lost. If his team had tried to win, played their better players more, and yet still lost, maybe because they made more mistakes, or because the other team was flat-out better.

I’m not disagreeing with Mr. Rubin’s central point. This no winners/no losers thing is silly, and is doing a disservice to those youngsters. But at the same time, I think that stopping at "winning matters" was the easy, facile point. In a lot of ways, losing matters more. How to lose gracefully, how to deal with the sting of losing even though you did your best, how to draw lessons from your loss so you improve. Those are the really important lessons of childhood games, and those are much harder to teach than the simple "winning matters".

In some ways, I think the unspoken reason behind the whole no winners/no losers idea is to avoid those lessons about loss, rather than any real animosity towards the idea of winning. We fear the the concept of losing so much that we denigrate the concept of winning. After all, if there are no winners, then there are no losers.


  1. Mr Rubin's team must have won as the constant losses placed them so low on the ranking table, that they were facing similarly terrible teams. It's easy to make spectacular results there. The question is what will happen when the team climbs high enough to reach its limits, to win and lose equally.

  2. Are there other lessons being taught other than winning or losing? He spoke of putting players in positions that merited their abilities. Is that lesson something that the coach learns, or did the kids learn that lesson as well?

    The other thing is, that at the game, winning should matter. By saying that it doesn't, he is telling them that they are not doing their best. Only when you are going all out does winning matter. If you are not, then it is only practice, and doesn't count as the "real thing".

    The parts you quoted are more a lesson for the adult, then for the kids. If they had lost, but played better, then the other lessons would have been learned still. It would have been like getting the raid boss down to the second phase after wiping on the first phase for 8 tries. Obviously the kids will see that the change is in the right direction, and be able to adjust from there.

    But who learns more from such situations? The raid leader/coach, or the raid members/players?

  3. Two things I would love to know about the background here, are how old these kids were and if "placing players in the positions they merited" implies that some merited being benched a lot.

    I believe it is right to always ask kids to do their best and to try to teach them how they can improve (telling them what they can do different/better, and being specific when you tell them they did good so they can learn what was good too). However, I also prefer to only gradually introduce elements like not letting the worst players play much of the real matches. That is in my mind a very bad idea if we are talking 8-year olds. I have no idea if he meant that - I just find that the coach he described sounds like he is in one extreme position (giving unspecific positive feedback completeley unrelated to performance), and if we talk about kids I also dislike the other extreme position.

  4. I get the whole "Its not about winning, its about sportsmanship" and "be a good winner AND a good loser" And in fact, I agree with both of those sentiments. But kids also need to be taught "do your best". If you do your best, and you lose, thats cool, you tried, you lost, maybe next time.

    Losing is a tool and has to be used correctly. Not just used by the coach, but used by the child (and adults). If you ALWAYS lose at bowling, and you HATE doing it, stop. Its ok to stop. If you LOVE to play baseball, and you ALWAYS lose, then consider a different league, more practice, etc. If you HATE football but always win, so what? Maybe you should quit anyway.

    This sort of "no winner or loser" attitude raises kids (in my opinion) to be under achievers. "who cares, lets just do it" Ick. Frack that. I want to play (WoW, baseball, frisbee, Uno, Wii, etc) and be entertained. Is it entertaining to lose and learn nothing from it? Xenu I hope not. When *I* lose, I think "why? What happened? How can I do better?" And THATS fun for me, its strategy, its problem solving.

    Telling kids "no winner/no loser" robs them of the satisfaction of knowing that they did their best. Even when I lose, I feel good because I showed my opponent my best, they won, and they should feel good about it. I brought it, they beat it. I congratulate them, I revel in their victory, I don't wallow in my loss. I learn from what they did so that next time I will be better.

    Its like they say, play people BETTER than you so that you learn.

    Sorry for rambling. :|

  5. Syrien, it says they are 11 years old in the first sentence of the article.

  6. Thanks Xenxu :) My fault for not following the link and checking.

    If you replace 8-year-olds with 11-year olds in my comment it still represents my point of view, I believe that it is a very bad idea to put an 11-year old on the bench regularly for matches (for being unskilled - if it was for never listening to the coach or never coming to practise sessions that is a slightly different matter).

    (I still think it is an incredibly bad idea to always tell the kids that everything is great, as that is not feedback you can learn from.)

  7. It's important to maintain perspective in a situation like this. One must remember, after all, that the whole "no winners and no losers" thing came about in the first place as a corrective to the tendency to attach social stigma to failure on the field even in peewee leagues, to let kids believe that their self-worth is only equal to their worth on the field.

    The problem is that what started as a way of saying "your parents and friends will still love you if you lose" has shifted to insulating kids from defeat entirely. As someone said above, it's important for kids to learn how to lose and how to win, to experience victory and defeat. The coach has to balance urging them to try their hardest with not letting them lose self esteem in defeat (or, for that matter, become arrogant in victory).

  8. "As I said at the start, perhaps not too much should be read into this little parable. Yet the broader question may be the most significant issue of our time: why should Western democratic societies abandon the techniques and thinking that have led to such great success, in order to embrace failure as glorious or victory as shameful?"

    This quote from him says it all. We as a nation have gone from one extream ( Win at all cost) to the other ( It doesnt matter if you win) Both ideals harm our kids. I think we should always want to win with the understanding that if you really try hard without cheating you will win more than you will lose but you won't win them all.

  9. As with so many discussions, this is framed as an all-or-nothing proposition. In reality, you can have it both ways, in stages.

    My son (8 yrs old) is on a baseball team that doesn't keep score and doesn't have wins or losses. At first I was a little annoyed by this, but it has grown on me.

    Losses are a huge turn-off to young kids. When they lose, they do learn lessons about sportsmanship and losing gracefully. On the other hand, they may decide to give up the sport entirely, which cuts off all future opportunities for success, failure, growth, and glory.

    So my son is fine in a no-loss league as he learns to enjoy the sport and gets the fundamentals down. When he turns 10 he'll move into a league that counts wins and losses.

    Having him in a no-losses league doesn't mean I am raising him that way for his whole life. Its just a first stage in a much bigger picture toward long term goals.

  10. Losing is fun only after my best effort.

  11. At that age, what made those children happy was making their second coach happy. Sports are almost always about the adults when children are pre-teens and younger. Kids can make fun out of a paper bag and a cardboard box. What they don't find fun is disappointing a coach, their parents and their teammates, which is what you're asking them to risk doing in a league/game where "winning" is what matters.

  12. Team sports are filled with these problems. Individual sports are not. Swimmers clearly know who wins and who loses since the clock is a stern master. Even the youngest swimmer knows the thrill of beating their own time despite placing dead last in an event. Good luck finding this type of satisfaction on a last ranked team in any team sport.


    "In the 1980s world of child rearing, the catchword was "self-esteem." Unconditional love and being valued "just because you're you!" was the prevailing philosophy. In practice, it involved constantly praising children, not criticizing them under any circumstances, emphasizing feelings, and not recognizing one child's achievements as superior to another's. At the end of a season, every player "won" a trophy. Instead of just one "student of the month," schools named dozens. Teachers inflated grades from kindergarten through college: "C" became the new "F." No one ever had to repeat a grade because staying behind caused poor self-esteem.

    The result of these child-rearing practices has been a measurable increase in narcissism and a generation that has a deeply embedded sense of entitlement, according to authorities like Dr. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable Than Ever."

  14. Will...I now understand so much about my life. From that last comment - it makes a lot of sense.

    As for winning/losing - look at histories greatest warlords/rulers/conquerors - they are remembered for winning a lot and losing only once (because they usually died).

  15. Vince Lombardi had a saying: "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser".

    Trying your best and still losing is normally a sign that you're doing the wrong thing. While such losses can teach important lessons, let's not overlook the importance of knowing when to give up and try a different angle.