How to be a Good Loser

One of the skills we should try to master in life is how to be gracious in defeat. It is highly likely that we will not always win. Some will get around this by not playing the game. But then miss out on all the fun.

Very Young Children

When a 3 year old doesn’t win, it is likely they will be very upset. They may even throw a tantrum. Children under the age of 6 generally see things in absolutes. They are playing a game to win, not to lose. So, losing is just not in their mindset. When they lose, they lose their self-control. They are quite literally devastated. At this age it is appropriate to introduce playing games as a way to have fun. Someone may finish first, someone else may finish second. The fun is playing the game and trying your best. When someone comes first you say well done, thank you for a great game. Model the response and language you would like them to emulate. Winning does not make you a better person, just as losing does not make you a lesser person.

If you are playing a game with a child who, because they think they will lose, throws the board pieces away and storms off saying they “hate this game” or something similar, try to remain calm. It is perfectly normal behaviour for a young child to express their emotions in a physical way. They are still learning how to manage their body, and emotions are as important and as normal to learn about as brushing their teeth or toilet training.

When an outburst like this occurs allow them time to recover and then quietly and calmly talk to them about how they felt. They are still learning how to communicate their feelings and may not have the words yet to describe how they feel. Talk to them about how it is hard sometimes when things don’t go as planned.  You could say something like;

  • “You were pretty upset before about the game we played”
  • “It can make you feel upset inside, but I don’t think throwing things is the best solution”
  • “Perhaps next time when you feel that way you could say, “I need to take a break from the game for a while””
  • “Not everyone wins all the time. When you win, I don’t win. How would it be if I threw the board when I did not win? Would it be fun to play if that happened?”

In addition to these situations where an explosive emotion has come out, try to find other times to draw attention to different emotions, so that you can give your child language to identify their feelings.

  • “I see you are very excited about going out today, you are jumping and running about so much. Do you like the feeling of being excited?”
  • “Or you seem to be tired. It is hard to do your best when you feel tired. Perhaps if you take a nap you will get some energy back and be able to enjoy this activity later.”

Make sure than when you are talking you are calm and not judging emotions are good or bad, just as part of who we are.

Be sure to model appropriate behaviour when you win or lose against another adult.  Show your child by your response the behaviour that you would like your child to emulate. This may mean forgoing the bantering as you play. Congratulating the winner and thanking others for the fun game. With young children they learn as much from seeing as doing.

Not only should you model being a good loser, try to also show your children how you struggle with difficult things, allow your children to see how you push through your difficulty. Life is challenging, be real about it, but also be a role model for perseverance and resilience.

Remember to allow your child to have opportunities to win and lose when they play games. If you always let them win, or tweak the rules to help them out, they begin to expect that they should always win, despite the rule. Don’t let them cheat. Instead play fairly, carefully explaining the rules before you begin and talk about how playing games is about having fun together, not so much about winning. Games are a chance to challenge ourselves. Some games are just a matter of chance, sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t, and that is ok. And when they win (or you win) don’t celebrate overly. Congratulate the winner and say thank you for playing the game with me. Then move on to whatever next activity you have planned.

Older children

When an older child loses a game and has a meltdown, they are basically trying to manipulate the situation to get what they want. This may be done consciously or unconsciously. They may have observed the behaviour of adults, or someone on television behaving badly when they lose, throwing a tennis racket or storming out of the room.

When they react strongly to losing, as a slightly older child, the strategy is similar to that for the small child. First remove them from the situation and then wait for a calm moment. Then discuss what happened, again helping them to articulate their feelings.

Empathise with them, acknowledging how they are feeling. If they are saying something like “I never win!” Repeat their words back to them to show you are listening and hear what they are saying. “You think you never win”. This will then allow them to feel like you want to listen and not just correct them. You may find they will continue, “Every time I play that game with Jo she wins, I think she cheats!” “You think when you play with Jo that she cheats.” And so on. In most cases they will discover within themselves the answers to their behaviours or with a little guidance with leading statements from you find out what they really feel and help them resolve it. You could add to the above, “What does Jo do when you think she cheats?” or “Does that make you upset when she cheats?” All of this will help your child express their feelings and develop the words to articulate their emotions.

After they have had a chance to be really heard and not judged, you may move to discussing other ways that may be better to act with others. You can discuss how their behaviour impacts other people. Now that they are a bit older, you can discuss how they think others may feel when they don’t win. How do they feel when you get so upset at not winning? Do you think they enjoyed playing with you when you acted like that? What about the person who was winning? If you were winning would you like the others to get upset? Or would you like them to say well done, good game etc.

Since they know that you have listened to them, they will be more open to listening to you. Work with them, using their ideas and your own to find a strategy to make playing games fun for everyone playing.

There will be many times where the ability to be gracious in defeat or in winning will be helpful. By working with your child, modelling appropriate behaviours and actively listening to your child, you will be able to work with them to develop these skills.

Australian Gifted Support Centre offers opportunities for children to get together with other children socially at our regular games and activity nights and annual camps. We also have workshops to help children Manage Big Emotions and develop Resilience. Check out our website for our other great services.