University of New Hampshire graduate and award-winning sports journalist Sam Weinman has seen a lot of winning and losing covering the PGA Tour and the National Hockey League, yet it was his experience as father (and coach) to his 11- and 9-year-old boys that inspired him to write Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains, out this month. Weinman talks about how losing (in any life arena) is actually beneficial for children — and adults.
Why write about losing?
I have two boys, both very competitive, and both of whom I coach in youth sports. What was apparent was that both struggled with even the most benign of setbacks. Having experienced my own share of losses, I wanted to impress upon them that it’s OK to lose, and how much it can help. From there, I became intrigued by how others have dealt with the dynamic and what we can learn from them.
How is losing good for kids?
Losing is good for kids in a hundred different ways, but let’s start with the fact that it reminds them that you have to work for anything that’s truly worthwhile.
If we always won, we wouldn’t develop a respect for the process, in whatever the forum: sports, school, you name it. I also think losing helps kids develop the skills they need to weather disappointment. You don’t want to scare them at a young age, but eventually they need to know that’s a part of life.
You coach youth sports teams, so you see a lot of winning, losing, kids, and parents. Do you feel there is more pressure on winning today than when you were a child? How do you see this impact the children you coach?
There is more pressure on kids now because I believe parents in general have more invested in their kids’ athletic careers. I’m guilty of this, too. I go to almost all of my boys’ games and practices. Meanwhile, I can recall weeks going by when my Dad wouldn’t come to watch me play. It’s not that he loved me any less. I just think it wasn’t the command performance that it is now. How does this impact kids? Well, I think even subconsciously kids get the message that these games “matter,” which inevitably leaves them feeling even worse when things don’t go well.
What’s the main message parents should share with their kids when it comes to losing (regardless of the activity)?
Parents need to stress the fact that losing is inevitable, that it happens to everyone, and that ultimately it’s going to make kids better. They’ll grow from whatever setback they’ve endured, much more so than if they simply won. Far more times than not, there’s always a next game, next practice, or at least a next season, and kids need to be made aware they can use this experience to their advantage.
What are your thoughts on the practice of “everybody gets a trophy”?
I have a nuanced answer to this because I get this question a lot.
Giving everyone a trophy is unhealthy if your objective is to insulate kids from the sensation of failure. Like I said, they’re going to have to deal with it eventually. However, if you want to find ways to reward kids for more than just winning and losing — effort, showing good sportsmanship— I am OK with that because it helps kids develop an appreciation for that “process”I referenced earlier.
How can parents best teach their children to be resilient?
The most important thing a parent can do is to teach kids to embrace challenge, to encourage, as psychologist Carol Dweck calls it, “a growth mindset.” The more we can instill in our kids the belief that they can always get better and that there are benefits even to defeat, the better equipped they are to handle adversity.
In the book, you write about many people who have lost — which story is your favorite?
I probably couldn’t pick one, because they all have real meaning to me. But there’s a pretty good message in Chapter 9 about the Columbia University football players who lost 44 straight games in the 1980s. This is a group of players who never won a single college football game, which might lead to the conclusion that the entire experience was a waste of time. In fact, a lot of those players went on to very successful careers in a variety of different fields, and they say it was their experience with losing that ultimately made them better men. When I think about the message of my book, that story hits at the heart of what I was after.
What do you hope readers take away from Win at Losing?
I really hope readers come away feeling emboldened enough to put themselves out there without fear of failure. I started writing this book because I wanted to teach my boys about the value of losing. But to me, the themes discussed are not just in the aftermath of a loss. It’s just as much for when you’re about to head into a venture — whether it’s a game, a test, or a job interview — and you’re worried about everything going wrong. What all the stories in Win at Losing reinforce is that people are much more resilient than we give them credit for. Knowing that, they shouldn’t be afraid to throw themselves into the arena.