Teaching Kids to Thrive in Healthy Competition: Winning and Losing

Motivation and competition are essential aspects of life on Earth.

Most of us are taught that competition breeds creativity and more choices. 

But what about when it doesn’t?

Can competition become toxic or detrimental?

Adults get caught up in hyper-competition, but children are particularly susceptible to it. 

This article will cover:

  • Can kids have fun winning and losing?
  • What is the constructive competitive spirit?
  • What are some best practices to redefine competition?

I have two decades of experience motivating young people as an educator and school leader.

Helping kids develop constructive definitions of winning and losing is sometimes challenging, sometimes rewarding, but always worth it.

Let’s explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of competition and pick up some great strategies to help teach kids how to win and lose with grace. 

How do we teach our kids how to handle victory and losing?

Human beings are born in the fires of competition.

Competition starts during the magical moment of our creation as millions of sperm race to the egg, searching for a point of entry to form a zygote. 

The determined and motivated sperm connects with the egg; the others do not. 

It is wired in our DNA to be competitive. 

The competitive spirit drives the sperm to reach the egg and make the connection that births our species. 

We do not come out of the womb knowing how to win or lose gracefully.

We develop through trial and error; wins and losses can sometimes define our experiences. 

How we perceive the wins and losses has an even more powerful impact. 

These essential skills take time to develop and require mindful nurturing. 

Can kids have fun winning and losing?

Like anything else in life, balance is essential in developing healthy competition. 

Competitiveness has many advantages.

It helps us build character, diligence, and perseverance while keeping us humble and hungry for more. 

Learning to love the experience and not the outcome takes mindfulness.

Nobody likes to lose.

If we widen our definition of loss to include experiences that improve our performance, losses become stepping stones toward a better version of us.

Children copy everything they see

If we wish to develop young people who can have fun, winning or losing, we must model these behaviors for them. 

How do we respond to loss? 

Do we get upset, throw tantrums, blame others, or make excuses? 

Do we accept the outcome and joyfully move on to the next game?

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In terms of developing character, you get what you give. 

Children repeat what they see modeled for them. 

Modeling having fun during competition, regardless of the outcome, starts with you. 

What is the constructive competitive spirit?

I have always enjoyed competition. 

I grew up watching Michael Jordan, arguably one of the world’s most competitive people. 

Micahel Jordan redefined how I perceived competition.

He put his greatness into context with the following statement:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.”

Mike opened my eyes to the idea that failure is part of the process. 

Jordan’s legacy introduced me to the constructive competitive spirit. 

He leveled up instead of making excuses when he got cut from his high school basketball team.

When his team lost in the playoffs for six years in a row, it drove him to work harder. 

The constructive competitive spirit is our soul’s desire to win for the sake of our development and evolution.

The constructive competitive spirit is the voice that pushes an individual to want to be their best for their own sake. 

It is centered on the idea that failure teaches us how to improve

Is too much competition bad?

Too much competitiveness has been tied to significant psychological drawbacks.

Hyper-competitiveness is an indiscriminate need to compete, win, and avoid losing at all costs.

Some hypercompetitive people push themselves to take on too many roles and tasks, causing them to fall short. 

Research suggests that intensely competitive people tend to have poor interpersonal relationships.

People with unbalanced competitive drives are motivated by external factors. 

People with high self-esteem and those motivated to master a skill are less likely to be hyper-competitive. 

Those who derive self-worth from winning, social status, or tangible items are likelier to be competitive in unhealthy ways. 

What are some best practices to redefine competition?

Video games can be a source of joy or frustration for kids. 

They can enhance a child’s self-esteem or have them throw the controller across the room in a rage. 

Tip 1: Use your children’s interest to fuel their development

In my house, our kids love the Super Mario Bros.

One of their favorite scenes from the Super Mario Bros. Movie is when Princess Peach is training Mario.

In a hilarious eighties-themed training montage scene, Mario tries over and over again to reach his goal.

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He fails repeatedly but never gives up.

The message to the audience is that Mario must develop a high level of perseverance.

We love this scene because it shows that even a celebrated hero like Mario has to work hard to accomplish his goals.

Whenever our son is having difficulty or letting losing make him frustrated or cry, we tell him how we would respond if we were in his shoes.

Then, we ask him what he thinks Mario would do in this situation.

Immersion works, so when our boy perceives his parents and Mario, a character he finds interesting, modeling perseverance, he copies the trait. 

Tip 2: I do, we do, you do

I do, we do, you do is a teaching strategy educators use to develop abilities in students.

It means you demonstrate a skill; you do it together with the student, and they then demonstrate it independently. 

In our family, a favorite activity is to play retro video games. 

My wife and I grew up playing Super Mario Bros and Zelda on the original Nintendo Entertainment System.

Our young sons have picked up our appreciation for retro games. 

We cannot simply tell him, “This is how you should act when you win,” and expect him to be a master of competition.

No, we must get down in the trenches and play with him.

We have to go and have fun with him and show him how to stay positive even if we lose by modeling a constructive competitive spirit. 

When we lose, we have to show what diligence looks like. 

We have to demonstrate behaviors and responses we wish to see. 

I play the video game by myself while he watches. 

Next, we play the video game together as practice. 

He plays on his own and determines his fate. 

Tip 3: Use positive language to promote positive outcomes

Our 3-year-old has taken on the challenge of emancipating Princess Peach from the clutches of Bowser and the Koopa Kingdom.

Observing him dodge goombas and find all the secret items on his quest warms my heart. 

Except for when it doesn’t. 

Our boy is brilliant, but he is still 3.

He has the emotional intelligence of a 3-year-old. 

Like anyone else, he gets frustrated when he falls into the lava or gets bit by a piranha plant.

But the fireworks start if he dies a few times in a row.

“I keep losing!”

“Why can’t I win?”

Couple these statements with loud cries, tears, and gesticulations that crescendo into a full-force collapse onto the carpet, and you have the ingredients for a meltdown. 

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Many parents get annoyed or frustrated that their child is making such a scene over a video game. 

I can’t help but see myself. 

When he is on the verge of a video game meltdown, I’m immediately pulled into my own childhood. 

I vividly remember crying out of frustration as a little boy trying to win at Mike Tyson’s Punchout

I am mindful to use positive, loving, and inspiring language. 

Instead of frustration with his pouting, I choose empathy.

Instead of being annoyed at his loud and over-dramatic response to a video game, I am focused on nurturing his drive to succeed. 

The language I used reminds him to keep going. 

I am developing his inner competitive nature.

I take the time to explain that each loss is an opportunity to learn how to command your emotions and respond instead of reacting. 

Explain to our son that it’s not about how many times you fall, but how many times you get up is tiresome.

It takes many attempts to reinforce how to win and lose gracefully. 

Tip 4: Redefine failure

The word fail is overused and misunderstood.

In the viral world, a failure is any mistake, miscue, misuse, or misunderstanding caught on film. 

In our household, FAIL is an acronym that means First Attempt In Learning.

When our boy fails, we explain that every time he plays, he is improving.

We push his development through self-reflection.

How lives, coins, and timing are all easily trackable.

He can see his improvement in live time. 

This perspective allows him to take a holistic approach to playing.

The game is not just about getting to the last level and defeating Bowser.

The experience is the journey.

Getting stuck on a level until you win is part of the process. 

When he does not win, we celebrate his FAIL.

We verbalize what is working well. 

“Wow, great job, son; congrats on your first attempt in learning.”

“I bet you won’t make the same mistakes on your next try.”

“I love how you are diligent and not giving up on yourself.”

What strategies do you employ to teach healthy competition to kids?

Hopefully, you found some helpful information and valuable strategies.

How do you teach kids to handle victory and losing?

We would love to hear about it in the comment section. 

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