When I first heard about a kids soccer league that didn’t keep score, I didn’t like it. At the time it was difficult to put my finger on the exact source of the ickiness, but I knew it was there.
As someone that grew up as a sick competitor, my first instinct was that those kids will not know the real feeling of coming out on top because their cum-bi-yah parents didn’t want them to feel bad about losing. “How unfair,” I thought, “that these kids are denied the thrill of winning because no one wants the other kids to feel bad for a minute.”
Then I had kids of my own and that was enough to shut me up for bit. Only for a bit though, because I started to see the disadvantages of constantly shielding our children from possible failure and hurt. Of course we want to protect them from physical harm, though a skinned knee or sore bottom is a great teaching tool sometimes, but is guarding them from failure really a benefit?
Looking back on a life full of athletic, academic, and ridiculous competition it is clear to see that I learned more from those competitive situations than from more “peaceful” means of learning. The times I learned the most though, were moments of losing, not winning. I had the great privilege of having some athletic ability and being on good teams that won more often than not, but I cannot sit here and recall more than four solid lessons I learned from more than 30 years worth of wins.
The most powerful and life transforming lessons came out of the most heart-wrenching defeats, though most of them required a little time and distance for me to benefit. In fact, one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned came 10 years after a series of stinging defeats and let downs.
I’ll save you the background details and tell them in my next book, but the summary is that I came into my senior year in high school with expectations of huge personal accomplishments. A three sport athlete, I expected to be the best player in our school across the board and be given our Athlete Of The Year award. Statistically, I topped nearly every category, but when the envelope was open and the name read, it wasn’t me. Devastated, angry, hurt… pick one or make one up, they all applied. Our coaches voted on the award and I came in second.
I carried that bitterness to the district track meet where I received four, count ‘em, four silver medals. Second place again. But instead of being pleased with a great performance, I was smug because the winner of the Athlete Of The Year didn’t take a single medal. What a punk, I know! Totally losing the little focus I had, the state meet was a joke and I didn’t do any better than eigth in anything.
For 10 years I carried the blame and bitterness around, until I was introduced to personal development and begin taking hard looks at myself. What I saw was a kid that played with all the natural ability he had and didn’t work worth a flip to get better. Someone that never went out of his way to help or teach a younger teammate. Yes, I technically lead by example, but only because it got the most attention. The winner that year, also my best friend which made it hurt even worse, did all of the things I didn’t. He was gifted, but understood how to work and get better. He took the time with other players and gave of himself. He did the things that exemplified the award beyond statistics.
Coming to grips with that lesson transformed me. More than anything else it prompted me to see how valuable those loses, those failures, were to the person I’ve become. All of the wins gave me a short-term thrill, but they let me move through life unprepared for setbacks and how to bounce back. Winning is fun and is the object of most games, but it is really the losing that gives long-term value if we have the tools to benefit from it.
Developing a mind-set that is resilient and understands how to benefit from failure is possible, I know from first-hand experience. Plus, failure has the added bonus of showing you when you have stretched beyond the bounds of your comfort zone. Real personal growth is only possible when we push and test ourselves, opening ourselves up to fail.
Learn how to embrace a failure when it happens and wring every bit of wisdom you can from it. See the upside and live the philosophy, “failure is only failure if you don’t learn from it.” Then teach to someone else, especially a kid. Do you want mentally tough and fully engaged children? Encourage them to grow, allow them to fail, and teach them how to grow even more because of it. When we can see failure for what it is and move past it with gusto, we are more encouraged to be our best and play at the edges of life… and that is where the fun is!
Be your best,