Why your kids need to lose

Sam Weinman

After watching his son unravel during a tennis match, Sam Weinman embarked on a mission to learn everything he could about losing.

Editor's Note: In "Win At Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead To Our Greatest Gains," Sam Weinman sheds light on the ways failure and losing can often be beneficial, using examples from fields as diverse as sports, business, politics and entertainment. The book, which includes the stories of former professional soccer player Sara Whalen Hess, golfer Greg Norman and the soap opera star Susan Lucci, began with the author's personal challenge of trying to teach his two sons the value of losing.

My son Charlie is a pretty good little tennis player. Even at 11, he has everything down -- the two-handed backhand, the open-stance forehand, the emphatic little grunt with every stroke. Charlie couldn't tell you the reason one grunts when playing tennis, but he knows that Rafael Nadal grunts, so the conversation ends there.

This is how it usually works with him. About a year ago, Charlie talked us into getting him a blue Nike headband like the one Nadal wears, and now whenever he misplaces it, he reacts as if he's missing a kidney. "Where's my headband?" he'll ask before a match, running frantically through the house. "I can't play without my headband!"

When it came time for our club's junior tournament, Charlie progressed through the early portion of his bracket with enough ease that he began thinking ahead to the final. We both did, actually, although outwardly I was saying all the right Dad things: respect your opponent; one match at a time; it's important to just have fun. In the semifinal, when Charlie matched up against a timid, freckly kid named Jake, he bounced onto the court confidently, perhaps thinking that if he wrapped up the win in enough time, he could sneak in a swim and a candy bar before dinner. Seated on the deck overlooking the tennis courts, my wife, Lisa, and I made small talk with Jake's mom and feigned indifference through the early portion of the match. Oh, are they keeping score? How cute! We anticipated a short match.

Sam Weinman

Sam Weinman wanted to teach his sons that losing is actually a key ingredient to achieving long-term success.

But as play unfolded, nothing went right. Charlie placed backhands into the corner and Jake hunted them down, sometimes even passing Charlie with a winner of his own. Serving, never a strength for my son, was now an ordeal, with Charlie at one point forfeiting an entire game by sending eight consecutive balls into the net. As I watched my son, I could see his anxiety level rise -- the hurried tosses, the twitchy fiddling with his racket, the occasional look heavenward when he sailed another shot long, as if God had suddenly taken interest in a 10-year-old's tennis match and was siding squarely with Jake.

Maybe so. The match was over in 20 minutes. Charlie lost 6-1.

When Jake approached the net with his hand extended, Charlie shuffled forward to weakly reciprocate, looking past his opponent the whole time. Then he tore off his headband, flung his racket at my feet as I approached and ran toward the parking lot.

"Charlie!" I hissed in a sort of scream-whisper, the same type of urgent yet polite tone you might use to ask someone to fetch you a roll of toilet paper. "Come back!"

Charlie turned toward me, his face streaked with tears.

"I'm never playing tennis again!" he said. "That's it!"

"That's it?" I said. "You're retiring? Will there be a press conference?"

"Stop, Dad," he said. "It's not funny."

It went on like that for a little while, Charlie swearing off tennis, me summoning some of my best it's only a game, you'll learn from this material. After convincing him to at least get in the car, I stood alone for a moment with Lisa, who offered me a faint smile in the What have we gotten ourselves into? vein. Then she finally spoke.

"My God," she said. "He's you."

***

So my interest in losing began with a tennis match. In watching Charlie unravel over something so insignificant I started to think about how learning to lose is an acquired skill, like juggling or parallel parking. I thought about all the time and energy we spend on teaching our kids how to hit a forehand, or skate backwards, yet how little we discuss what to do when things go wrong.

My curiosity about losing began as a sports challenge, originating with two boys who can't resist wrapping whatever contest up into their overall feelings of self-worth. But I've also recognized that sports are a window into everything else. How we deal with success and failure in sports early on can be a precursor to how we might navigate more complicated obstacles later. The baseball games we lose at age 10 turn into the colleges we don't get into at 18, which in turn become lost jobs and marriages and things that are even scarier than that. Of course, it would be contrived to suggest our ability to lose a game and move on will translate to our overcoming life's most daunting challenges. But it can be a start. Think of it this way: if you can't handle things going awry when the stakes are small, you're in for that much rougher a ride when the real challenges start to mount.

"This is an area I speak a great deal about, this whole concept of how you develop resiliency in people," says Dr. Jerry Brodlie, a leading child psychologist in Greenwich, Connecticut. "Over the years you're going to deal with failure, disaster and painful events, and you have to learn how to get on with life afterwards. When you talk about how you develop that, sports is a natural because of the idea you can't always win. That's a given."

This is a truth I've come to appreciate not only as a father of two sports-mad kids but also as someone whose own frequent dalliances with failure have served in ways winning never can. In whatever the realm -- sports, work, maintaining healthy relationships -- the occasional intrusion of disappointment is what has made me stronger in the long run. From there it stands to reason that losing is not only something we should tolerate, but rather that we need.

I'd love to tell you I contemplated all this while driving away from the tennis courts that day, but more likely I was thinking about dinner and whether I needed to stop for beer. But the image of Charlie's frustration that day lingered. I had taught my son a forehand and a backhand, and he knew exactly where to stand at 30-15. But I'm not sure there could be a more valuable lesson than how to navigate the swirling emotions that come with defeat.

Adapted from "Win at Losing" by Sam Weinman with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2016 by Sam Weinman.

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