Teaching Kids to be Good Losers?



Ok, I admit it.  I hate losing.  I hate losing even more when I know i don’t have a chance to win.  I have played hockey since I was in preschool and I continue to play to this day and I have always tried to play at my level or slightly higher.  If I found myself in a game in which there was absolutely no chance of winning, I often disengaged and made a joke about the game (picture me and some buddies from high school playing in a 3 on 3 tourney against a bunch of ex-pro’s… it happened and it wasn’t pretty).

Because of my stance on awards, people make assumptions that I am opposed to competition.  People who have played sports with me or for me know that I truly love what can result from a positive athletic experience.  Here is the thing, though… I love competing when it is my choice and when it is at a level that is  challenging and there is a (even small) chance for success.  I do not enjoy being thrown into a competition in which I have no choice and I have very little skill compared to others (think – me in a trades competition… yikes). I would rather practice, set goals, compete against myself, and gain some confidence.  If I choose to compete following this, I will likely enjoy it. (note: I also know that as a coach trying to build a program, we purposefully faced competition that was way beyond our skill level once in a while but our goal was different.)

So this is why I REALLY struggle with all the articles and posts going around that say “we need to teach kids to lose” and “we need to have our kids in highly competitive environments so they are ready for the real world“; I also struggle with the ones that state “all competition is bad for kids“.  What do these statements even mean?  They are surface level comments that often end there and do not allow us to go deeper into the discussion around learning.  I think much of what we do falls in the middle and this dichotomy of all ‘competition vs no competition’ misses the point of what we are really trying to do: teach skills and build confidence and resiliency.

When we state, “we need to teach kids to lose”, we make a huge assumption of what “losing” means and that our kids live in a world in which they never lose.  Kids lose every day.  Some kids come to school have had losses before they enter the doorways. If they lost the battle to have a mother and father… if they lost the battle to have a breakfast… if they lost the battle to have a good friend… if they lost the battle to be a “typical” child (whatever that means)… and yet, they still come to our school with a smile on their faces – are we supposed to teach them to be better LOSERS?

What we really need to be talking about is the need to foster a growth mindset (Dweck), develop self-confidence, teach resilience, and help our kids understand what to do when they set a goal and we do not achieve it. (feel free to insert the buzzword “grit” anywhere here).

Confidence.  It’s what it is all about.  I am not talking about self-esteem, I am taking about self-confidence. Telling kids they are great or giving or setting them up for fake victories may give them some self-esteem but this will quickly disappear when faced with an authentic challenge.  We need to work to develop real confidence and resiliency. When we are confident enough and are provided with a safe environment, we take risks, we fall, we reset, and we keep moving toward our goal.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes,

“…at the beginning of ever winning streak there is a leader who creates the foundation for confidence that permits unexpected people to achieve high levels of performance” (via Tom Schimmer)

So if we move the discussion beyond the idea of teaching kids to be losers (and a few winners) and we focus more on confidence and resilience, how do we actually do this as parents and teachers?  Here are some of my thoughts (and please feel free to add yours in the comments below – would love to learn more ideas)

  • Teach about a growth mindset – that intelligence and skill levels are not fixed… that humans are malleable and can learn any skill with purposeful practice.
  • Provide a safe environment for taking risks. Don’t catch them when they fall but provide a smaller fall and guide them on how to respond when they fall.  Check out Sheila Stewart’s excellent post on this.
  • Help our kids to set personal goals that are focused on growth and do not depend on beating someone else.  We cannot control what others do… if we win because we defeat someone with less skill level, is this a success?
  • “Get them on a winning streak” (Tom Schimmer). Provide enough teaching, guidance, and practice so that kids can achieve small victories.  Many of our kids have lost in school for a number of years and therefore, have no confidence and become disengaged.  By “over preparing them” (Schimmer) and creating authentic victories based on personal goals, we can increase confidence.
  • Embrace their strengths and support the deficits. Every child can be successful at something so find out skills in which our kids have confidence (or are interested in) and key on those strengths and use this as a platform to change the trajectory of their learning.
  • Meet them where they are.  Back up to where our kids can have success (or move forward so they can be challenged).  As Kanter writes, “Expectations about the likelihood of eventual success determines the amount of effort people are willing to put in.”   If students are faced with a task in which they believe that there is a chance of success , engagement and effort will increase.
  • If you are going to use competition, provide choice and work to place kids at a level that challenges them and provides an opportunity for success.

Let’s move away from (and beyond) the talk about teaching kids to be good losers.  It is a generalized statement and we have no idea what “losing” means to each child.  We can teach sportsmanship and respect but, in my experience, I have never succeeded in becoming a “good loser”.  Let’s go deeper and talk about confidence and what happens when we do not meet our goals.  Let’s meet kids where they are, provide a safe and challenging environment in which risk taking and making mistakes is encouraged… as long as we use it to become better.

I don’t want my kids to become “successful losers” (huh?).  I want my kids to grow up and become confident learners.  I want them to know their strengths and be aware of their areas they need to work on.  I want them to take risks and fall… and when they do, have the support and self-confidence to get back up and try again.  I am sure I will continue to make mistakes as a parent and teacher but I will continue to reset and try again. With the aforementioned developed skills and support from family and teachers, I know there is a good chance our kids will achieve more success and eventually lead a worthwhile life… which is defined by them.

I would love to hear more ideas and thoughts on this… feel free to share and/or leave a comment below.




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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. Chris
    I can relate within much of your post. Your reference to Dweck’s growth mindset is a helpful one. I like the idea of teaching and fostering a sense of “bounce back” from a loss or a shortcoming. This thinking also helps me frame issues around asessment and grading. Thanks for continuing to push my thinking

    • Yes… huge links to assessment here. As Schimmer says, many of our kids have been on “losing streaks” for years… using sound formative assessment can work to change that. Thanks for commenting, Johnny! (and thanks for leading the change with assessment in high school settings).

  2. Thanks for the post Chris and framing this issue in a positive way.
    We often struggle with finding the reasons why students won’t try or attempt tasks- reiterating the need to meet students where they are and set the carrot a little out of reach….As a staff, we have begun to talk about “stamina” – focusing on supporting students to try and stick with it ( see stamina in the Daily 5 language program) especially when it comes to math. In short you made me think of the ideas that we learn through mistakes, ours is not to fly the students to the top of the mountain, but give them the equipment to get there and cheer lead all the way.

    • One of the teachers at our school has taught me a lot about stamina with her grade 1 students and Daily 5. If we view everything through the lens of a skill and something that can be learned, we stop trying to motivate with external carrots and move to ones that come from within.

      Thanks, Ken – great addition to the conversation.

  3. Nice post, Chris. I like how you lead us away from the “competition vs no competition” conversation. Rightly, our attention should focus on developing confidence and resiliency. We can do this when as coaches, teachers, and parents, we provide feedback about the process. Often it seems that too much emphasis is placed on the results (wins and losses, scores, etc), which has limited value in terms of feedback for learning and may be de-motivating (especially for those who had not chosen or were not ready to compete in the first place). When coaching emphasizes the process over results we are in a stronger position to support the learner. Focus less on judging, and focus more on giving feedback that builds confidence and resilience.

    • Sure is… and it is so important to teach this with young kids. I need to look more into elementary resources in this area.

  4. Hey Chris. Great post. I like the idea of the “bounce back” as well. I like to refer to it as dealing with adversity and the development of character, and your insertion of “grit” is perfect here. All of these things support my thoughts that we are coaches in the classroom, as those of us that do coach support these ideas with our teams every practice and game. I have also shared many of yours and others ideas around awards and there is some discussion here about that. Keep up the good work!

    • Hey buddy – yes, I think people are sick of me using the coaching analogy but I love it (as long as we keep the focus on skill development rather than winning… because as we know, especially with younger kids, you can win but it does not mean the kids have learned the skills – ex. in volleyball, just keep giving the team the other ball until they mess it up). Awards is always an interesting topic… I think we are at least starting to question their use and to look deeper when we discuss competition and motivation. Thanks for emphasizing the coaching aspect – well needed here.

  5. I think the same intention is there (resiliency, bouncing back, confidence) in those who want to ‘teach kids to lose’ or ‘be good losers’. It’s just semantics?

    • Hey Anna! I think there is a real push (or resistance to those who want to change) for schools to create opportunities to for students to continually lose as this is what the “big, bad real world” is all about. What I mean by this is that when we talk about more collaboration and less competition, we often get cut off and people immediately respond that “this is not the real world… kids need to learn how to lose”. When we talk about creating more success for students by meeting where they are, we get the same response. When we talk about moving away from awards and shifting to a system that honours each child for a strength they have… we get the “real world losing” comments and fail to move in to discussing learning resilience and building confidence. It is often surface level conversations (often in the media) that hinder deeper conversation. Yes, it is so important to experience falls, mistakes, errors, failures… but experiencing these in a game you don’t want to play against opponents in which you have no chance does nothing but disengage.

      I find the same frustration when we discuss moving away from grades. People hear this and think that we are all worried about self-esteem and we don’t get to move deeper into dialogue around real assessment.

      So semantics might be a part… but the conversation often ends with “competition good vs competition bad” when it is so much deeper than that.

  6. I agree with some of the earlier comments. The argument is not whether competition is good or bad (it is both, depending) but whether or not it promotes learning. Sometimes when I ‘win’ I don’t learn anything and sometimes when I ‘lose’ I don’t learn anything. Neither is really helpful.

    I terms of learning, that is one of the greatest strengths of formative assessment: it show students how to take the next step. As an English teacher, I have learned to use formative assessment only while teaching the skill and then introducing summative assessment when I’m grading a ‘finished’ product. I have seen students make much faster progress that way (once they get used to it).

    However, you also made the comment that ‘kids lose every day.’ I think that is where the comment that we should teach children to be better losers comes into play. We know they lose in many areas. You mentioned lack of parents, lack of caring parents, lack of food, etc. Teaching children to deal with that helps them focus on resiliency, develops grit, and interdependence. I guess where I take this is that we help children to learn that when they lose (and they will) that they do so graciously but with a determination that the end result will change. This holds just as true for when they compete against themselves or against another sports team or when it is against life (dealing with absent parents).

    • Love what you said about competition, learning and assessment… some golden quotes in there.

      I think it is one thing to help kids with adversity and determination. It is another thing to purposefully turn school into a game in which certain students continue to lose each year. I know that is not what you are saying but it just came to mind with your comment. That is my real issue… often the kids who we teach to be better “losers” are the ones who lose on a regular basis… and could use the odd win once in a while to build confidence.


  7. Thanks for linking my post, Chris. I really appreciate the depth you have added to this topic in your post. Such good dialogue and thoughts added as well!
    It seems there is a lot to clarify what we mean by “losing”. eg How does “choice” fit in/impact… is losing the same as dealing with adversity? It may just mean that we have to really look at each individual’s circumstance…where they are, who they are, and where they have been. As you referred to as well.
    I had a thought re: hope… but I forget what it was now… 🙂

    • Yes – it is a very personal form of learning… as what is perceived as a “loss” to one may not be to others and the size of the loss may be much bigger to some.

      I guess what I am frustrated about is that when we hear that “kids need to learn how to lose”, the examples that are used often result in the same kids losing over and over again… and to me, that just widens the gap.

      Thanks for starting this conversation, Sheila.

  8. Chris, great post. As a former coach now Principal, the idea that has been permeated throughout society that you have to be successful at everything all the time is detrimental to our kids. It is OK not to achieve EVERY time. The key question is, “what do you do next?”. Do you just give up, or do you refocus, analyze what happened and learn form the experience. If our kids (and us) did that, then the experience was not a “failure”. Thanks for the article. I am going to share it with my staff next week.

    • Thank, David – yes, the “where to next?” question is huge. It reframes a failure, loss, bump, glitch, fall… into a learning experience.

      Well said.

  9. A few years ago someone asked a student what was the most important thing they learned in my class. He answered, “Mr. Cote taught me it was okay to fail.” Thank god he explained that one because at the time there was not a growing support for this ‘old school’ approach to learning. Failure or ‘losing’ is such an important part of learning because it should always create the question ‘why’ and all learning starts with the question ‘why’.

  10. Agreed. A growth mindset helps put losses into perspective. When we see the world as binary (i.e. win/lose) we miss opportunities for celebration. We also limit our decision-making capacity as per Dan Heath’s _Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions in Life and Work_

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