Winning or learning: Which is more important?

I was at a judo practice the other day when I observed the following parent-child interaction in the beginners’ class:

Two judo athletes (approximately 10 years old) were simulating a particular grab and throw technique on each other during a practice. Sitting close by were two fathers. One was fairly quiet and I could not make out who his son was. The other was sitting on a chair on the edge of training matt and I could clearly see who his son was. His son was the one ending on his back after every attempt of the technique. I heard the following being repeated endlessly from the father: “Roer hom boeta, roer hom”! This vaguely translates to “give it to him son, give it to him”! The ironic thing was that the more the father tried to encourage his son the more his son was actually glancing back at him… the more he was not paying attention to the task at hand… the more he did not see his opponent moving in for the grab… the quicker he was ending on his back!

While the intention of the father to motivate his son to perform was commendable, the result was far from ideal. The emotions awoken in that father by watching his son get beaten was much stronger than him realising that he was playing the major part in his son being beaten. I would have loved to hear the advice from that father to his son after that practice because I have a suspicion that it would have been based on a win-at-all-cost attitude.

There is a common view in society that winning is all that matters and that you should do all in your power to avoid losing. This is the win-at-all-cost attitude. This attitude does not take kindly to making mistakes, and making mistakes should be avoided. The win-at-all-cost attitude can be detrimental to your child’s participation in sport and could also contribute to your child becoming a rebellious athlete. Further, mistakes are seen as just that and little learning actually takes place.

If you have that win-at-all-cost attitude and your child is loosing, it can lead to emotion-driven behaviour by you as a parent. It is most often observed when parents run up and down the side-lines during games attempting to motivate their children to make a difference on the scoreboard. Parents have even started arguments with the referees or umpires if they feel their child was hard done by. This emotion-driven behaviour is characterised by you behaving in a certain way because you felt a certain way. Often your emotion-driven behaviour is stronger than your realisation that this behaviour is potentially embarrassing to your child, can over time be detrimental to your child’s motivation to carry on playing the sport, or can lead to him/her becoming rebellious towards your attendance at their sports events.

Am I saying that winning is not important? Not at all! It is still the fundamental goal of playing sport and you should always prepare as if to win. The problem of making winning everything is that your child will start to base their self-worth on the result of the match or competition. This is problematic because you are setting them up to fail. Did Roger Federer not lose matches at Wimbledon? Did Michael Schumacher not lose races during his 7 years of being Formula One’s World Champion? Roger and Michael’s parents were part of the 1% of parents whose children make it to the very top, and still their children lost on occasion. You are most likely part of the 99% of parents who have talented children who will learn invaluable life lessons from sport and gain years of enjoyment from their sport, at what ever level they participate at. Besides death and taxes you can be guaranteed that your child will lose on occasion and this should not be the be-all-and-end-all. Much more important is that learning takes place, most important of which is arguably to learn that thorough preparation with the aim of achieving success will lead to success.

While encouraging your child don’t consider just your actual words, consider what lies behind your words and your behaviours. Consider whether your behaviour in front of your children is emotion-driven? Are you sending conflicting messages to your child by your win-at-all-cost attitude on the side-lines but then consoling them afterwards if they have lost? Are you using quotes like “winning is not everything, it is the only thing” and “second place is just first loser”? Are you teaching your child that it is ok just to react emotionally?

Hopefully this article will just get you thinking again about what you are teaching your children about their participation in sport. While winning is the end destination your child must be looking for when playing sport, there is a endless journey that they will miss if they keep focussing only on the win. They will miss all the life lessons along the way and only end up disappointed because somewhere they will lose to someone.

To conclude I want to leave you with the following tips that can help you overcome that emotion-driven behaviour by replacing it with value-driven behaviour:

  • Experiencing emotions is a natural part of life (otherwise we would not have them!).
  • Emotions give us information about our experiences at that time.
  • Reacting (behaving) to your emotions results in inconsistent behaviours.
  • These inconsistent behaviours are the true problem, not the emotion you experienced!
  • To behave consistently, base decisions on something consistent = VALUES.
  • Start regarding values, not emotions, as the more important factor to base behaviour on.
  • Choose a value(s) that will consistently send the same message to your kids, regardless of the score on the scoreboard.
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