Winning By Losing: Lessons In Resiliency At A First-Grade Soccer Game

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The first thing you have to understand about first-grade soccer is how real everything suddenly feels to the kids.

For many of the kids (including mine), this month represents their first experience with putting on a "real" jersey (their own), regularly attending a "real" practice -- and competing against another "real" team.

And before they get caught up (a lamentably few short years later) in travel teams or the pressure to specialize in a single sport or games where the league keeps score, that realness is pretty close to the purest form of sports emotion you will find anywhere.

There is a particular "real" feeling associated with winning and losing -- technically, the kids (and parents) aren't supposed to keep score, but the kids certainly do, with actuarial precision. As a coach or parent, you can try to get them to value the process over the outcome, but you have to accept that the kids are going to focus on that score.

In their first two games this fall, my son's first-grade team has played well -- they would insist to you that their aggregate score is something like 25-3, but the score itself is only important in that they all too quickly began to think that they were Carli, Abby, 'Pinoe and the '15ers.

This past Saturday, they finally -- and, to me, blissfully -- ran into a better team. A much better team. A team that scored right out of the gate. A team that passed beautifully with one another and moved without the ball, into open space. A team that was able to shut down our team's previously unstoppable runs at the mini goal.

(Brief aside: The opposing team came from the same elementary school I attended, 30-some years ago, when I was a key cog in what was arguably our county's worst grade-school soccer team ever. It's like if you played football at Northwestern in the epically winless early 1980s, then watched them surge into the Top 20 in 2015.)

When you watch things unfold, it is clear the kids go through Stages of Being Obliterated, not unlike Kubler-Ross's classic Stages of Grief: Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

First came a disbelief that their previous success didn't seem to now apply. Then there was the frustration (and, yes, even a few tears) that came with being on the wrong side of the scoreboard they had valued so much. Then there was a clear deflation of effort, as they realized nothing they tried would stop the other team, let alone change the final result.

And, finally, there was the ultimate -- and oh-so-valuable -- lesson:

Losing happens, and it's OK.

Failure is where resiliency is created. It is when grit is developed. It is when optimism is forged.

This is one of the first instances of in-their-face failure that any of these 7-year-olds have experienced. The first of many, many "scoreboard" failures they will experience in their lives -- mostly outside of sports, but certainly in sports as well as they continue to play during their childhoods and beyond.

And for parents of kids on the losing side for the first time, this is the crucible. How are you helping your kids manage failure?

This is the moment to encourage them to focus on the process, not the outcome. To urge them to redouble their effort, rather than want to cut it back. To teach them to embrace great sportsmanship and congratulate the other team on their great play, scoreboard-watching or not.

This is the moment to acknowledge their disappointment as a legitimate feeling and to remind them that losing happens to everyone. Whoever their favorite athlete or team is, you can almost surely point to a similar disappointing outcome, along with the postscript that the loss was followed by their getting up and moving on to the next game.

This is the moment to give your kids a hug, tell them how proud you are of how hard they played and move on to the next activity of the day.

Over the past month, it had been hard to enjoy what the kids would qualify as "wins." There was no challenge. They didn't have to work particularly hard at it. They focused far too much on the widening goal differential. It wasn't pride in a job well done as much as the scoreboard morphing into a vanity mirror.

So that's why I didn't mind seeing my kid's team get shellacked. He had to work through his frustration. He had to challenge himself to try to keep up with the other team's superior players. He couldn't really focus on the score -- at a minimum, it was too pride-wounding to keep track. I knew that, if approached appropriately, this first crushing loss was way more valuable for him than any thrilling win.

Great books about parenting -- from the classic "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee" to the newly published "The Gift of Failure" -- highlight the essential importance of being totally comfortable with your child losing, because it only helps to develop the kind of resilience that turns us all into happy, productive, "winning" adults.

That first eye-opening, ego-crushing loss as a kid in youth sports is a momentous -- and welcome -- building block in that process.

Dan Shanoff writes about the intersection of sports and parenting for espnW. Have a similar feeling about your kids' sports? Join the discussion on Facebook with me (facebook.com/danshanoff) or espnW (facebook.com/espnw), on Twitter (@danshanoff) or on Instagram (@danshanoff).<.i>