The author of “Win at Losing” on youth sports—and why failure is good for kids
Whether playing hockey, ping-pong, or wiffle ball, Sam Weinman’s sons have always been fierce competitors. That’s a good thing, he thought—until he watched one of them have an epic meltdown after losing.
How kids deal with success and failure in sports and other activities early on can be a preview to how they later navigate bigger things, like jobs and marriages, says Weinman, a youth-sports coach and digital editor of Golf Digest. He’s made a study of resiliency in his new book, Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains.
We asked him about the life lessons that kids’ sports hold for his sons—Charley, age 11, and Will, age 9 (shown below)—and all kids:
Best thing about kids playing sports: It’s a tie between the smiles on their faces during the games and donut powder all over their faces after the game.
Worst thing about kids playing sports: Parents who forget it’s not about them.
My take on trophies for everyone who participates: By a certain age, there’s no value in insulating kids from success and failure, so a trophy just for signing up to play sends the wrong message. That said, if you want to reward kids for improving, sportsmanship, or working hard every practice, I’m OK with that.
Why failure is good for kids: It forces them to problem-solve, which is a vital skill for kids (and adults). I compare it to a muscle. When we exercise our muscles, we need to tear the fiber a bit for it to grow back stronger.
My definition of a winner: Someone who persists.
My definition of a loser: Someone who doesn’t even try.
My definition of failure: Real failure is not learning from your mistakes.
3 things I wish every parent knew:
1) Shielding your kids from failure only ends up hurting them.
2) Childhood is supposed to be messy, literally and figuratively.
3) You can fix most electronic devices just by turning them off and then turning them back on.
My take on quitting a sport mid-season: I’m opposed. Kids need to learn to honor their commitments—and see that there’s great value in persisting through an experience that isn’t particularly happy.
What I say to kids who say, “I suck at ___”: I subscribe to the thinking of professor and author Carol Dweck, who stresses the power of the word “yet.” Kids need to know their deficiencies can always be improved upon. So if the statement is “I’m not very good at math,” the better way to think of it is, “I’m not very good at math yet.” Recognizing you can always work to get better is an empowering feeling.
What I wish I could say to parents screaming from the sidelines: Make sure you’re getting wrapped up in the game for the right reasons. If you’re looking to encourage, that’s one thing. But if you’re looking to criticize a player, a coach, or a referee, put a muzzle on it.
A family ritual we love: My wife introduced a tradition a few years ago that at someone’s birthday, we go around the table and say what we love about that person. Everyone gets the same treatment: parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins. And the key is that you can’t offer banal platitudes, like “You have a good heart.” You need to get specific.
Favorite family movie at our house: Fantastic Mr. Fox.
The one book I recommend to every parent I know: Carol Dweck’s Mindset.
A question parents always ask me: “Where do you find the time?” I have a full-time job, I coach all my kids’ teams, and I wrote a book. The answer is that my yard is a mess, my garage is a disaster, and I rarely put my clean clothes away in my drawers. In other words, people find a way to do the things they’re passionate about, and they tend to neglect the rest.
A question kids always ask me: “What’s wrong with your car?” I have a dirty car too.
One thing parents worry about but shouldn’t: Whether your kid is “popular.” The best way it was described to me is that your kid only needs two friends. He needs one friend, and then he needs a second friend to step in if the first friend is sick.
One thing parents don’t worry about but should: Whether they’re deriving too much happiness from their kids’ successes. This is different from wanting our kids to be happy. Of course we all want that. But we need to make sure that our kids aren’t striving to achieve just to satisfy us. What we really want is for our kids’ ambitions to come from within.
An influence on my parenting that might surprise people: Maybe this isn’t surprising to the people who know I grew up worshipping Wayne Gretzky. But I always go back to his quote: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” The immediate context was hockey. But for me, the message applies to everything: It’s far better to try and mess up than to not try at all.
The best parenting advice I ever got: If you try to solve all your kids’ problems, you’re taking away their ability to solve them on their own.
My motto as a dad: Don’t tell Mom. We can clean it up in the morning.
Photo: Sam Weinman and sons