Learning to Be a Good Sport

Being able to tolerate winning and losing is an essential social skill for children. Children under five don’t really understand rules, so it doesn’t make sense to focus on competition with them, but as children move through elementary school, games with rules become an increasingly important part of their play.

One study by Anne Humphreys and Peter Smith looked at the playground activities of seven- to eleven-year-old children. They found that seven-year olds spent around 10% of their playground time playing games with rules, while 11-year-olds spent about 40% of their time doing this.

Many children have trouble coping with winning and losing. They gloat and brag when they win. They cheat or argue to change the rules to try to make sure they win. They cry, sulk, or accuse others of cheating if they lose. They quit in the middle of a game if things aren’t going their way. I’ve also seen kids who are afraid to compete because they don’t want to be “mean” by beating anyone.

If any of these sound familiar, your child may need some help in learning to handle competition. Here are ideas of some “intermediate steps” you can take with your child. You can use as many or as few of these as your child needs.

1) Beat your own record. Get a stopwatch and see how long your child can hold her breath. Or, use a piece of chalk to see how far on the sidewalk she can jump. Sometimes she’ll beat her record; sometimes she won’t, but she can keep trying. Self-competition is an easy way to start learning to tolerate winning and losing.

2) Cooperative games. Board games like Harvest Time from Family Pastimes involve players working together to achieve a goal. Everyone wins or loses together, which means your child has company in coping with the outcome.

3) Brief competitive games. Very short games like Blink allow children to try again shortly after a loss.

4) Kids against the grown-ups. Competing against adults in longer competitive games, whether it’s in a board game or a ball game, is fun and not very threatening for kids. If they lose, it’s expectable, but if the win, the victory is very sweet.

5) Team sports. When your child is ready, team sports provide great lessons in sportsmanship. A caring coach and post-game rituals like giving the other team high-fives and going out for ice cream together can help your child learn to take competition in stride. Team sports are also an opportunity to focus on improving skills. Even when your child’s team loses, there can be small victories in making a good shot or playing good defense.

Winning is exciting. Losing is disappointing. The key to coping with either is to understand that these are temporary states.

An elementary school client of mine was anxious about a racquetball tournament he was playing in. I asked him, “What will happen after the game if you win?” He said he’d shake hands with the other play then go find his parents, who would tell him congratulations, then they’d all go out for lunch. I asked him, “What will happen after the game if you lose?” He said he’d shake hands with the other player then go find his parents, who would tell him nice try, the they’d all go out for lunch. I asked him to figure out how long the winning or the losing lasts. He said about five minutes. The game, on the other hand, he said typically lasts 45 minutes. So, it makes much more sense to focus on the game—on playing well, trying hard, and having fun playing a sport he enjoys—than the brief final outcome.

How have you helped your child learn to be a good sport?



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Children’s Growing Friendships


For further reading:

Hughes, C., Cutting, A. L., & Dunn, J. (2001). Acting nasty in the face of failure? Longitudinal observations of “hard-to-manage” children playing a rigged competitive game with a firend. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 29, 403-416.

Humphreys, A. P., & Smith, P. K. (1984). Rough-and-tumble play in preschool and playground. In P. K. Smith (Ed.), Play in Animals and Humans (pp. 241-266). Oxford: Blackwell.

Smith, P. (2010). Children and Play. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.


© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.