Why Losing Does Not Have to Hurt Our Confidence

Many coaches and parents believe that children need to win to have strong self-esteem. Is this true? Well to an extent it is true, people feel better after winning in most cases. But, they do not need to win. The importance of winning has been exaggerated. A 2007 survey by the Josephson Institute revealed that the majority of athletes do not think winning is essential to their experience (1).

I remember when several youth hockey parents and coaches were on my case for creating a recreation or house league “draft” and not allowing coaches to bring their own teams in to the league. The goal was to create more parity and chances for everyone to have success. I was receiving complaints when one of the best teams from the previous year was not winning in the draft league. The argument was that losing was destroying their children’s confidence. My reply was that the focus of the league was development and having fun, the building blocks of confidence. Often it is the adults around the kids focusing on winning and losing that has the kids feeling down.

So, another ivory tower professor that knows nothing about reality, right? I understand that winning is important. I love to win. I have spent the majority of my life striving to win and helping athletes and teams win at all levels. However, I realize that success has to be about more than winning. Winning is a 50/50 proposition and something we do not completely control. Should having a positive experience and learning from sport really be a 50/50 gamble?

The theory of competence motivation asserts that youth are motivated to participate in sport because they perceive they are competent (2). This is influenced by winning but only partially. Competence evaluations also could be related to performance of skills, tactics, specifically as it relates to previous performances (under the child’s control). If coaches and parents, however, focus on winning to boost the confidence, then youth will only use winning as a marker of success. An uncontrollable factor is the primary source of confidence.

Do you think winning is most important to young athletes? The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University found that girls and boys put winning near the bottom of list of reasons for sport participation (3). Add to that a recent survey that found 74% of boys and 76% of girls strongly disagree with the sit on the bench for a winner; they would rather play (1).

My argument is that often adults need to win to feel good about their coaching and parenting. In the future we need to focus our efforts on redefining success and helping all young athletes feel successful based on improving their skills. Winning is important but let’s put it in the right perspective   behind fun and development.

Common Belief: Children need to win to enhance their self-esteem.

Science says… The child’s perception of his or her competence is a controllable and better indicator of success.

  1. Josephson Institute of Ethics. (February 16, 2007). What Are Your Children Learning? The Impact of High School Sports on the Values and Ethics of High School Athletes. Retrieved on July 10, 2012 at http://josephsoninstitute.org/pdf/sports_survey_report_022107.pdf
  2. Weiss, M. (September, 2000). Motivating kids in physical activity. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest, 3 (11), Retrieved on July 10, 2012 at https://www.presidentschallenge.org/informed/digest/docs/200009digest.pdf
  3. Seefeldt, V., Ewing, M., & Walk, S. (1992). Overview of youth sports programs in the United States. Washington, DC: Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.

NWCA Youth Sport Blog

Grappling with the Toughest Youth Sport Issues

Because Youth Sport Athletes Deserve Quality Coaching and Positive Parenting

Larry Lauer, Ph D

Director of Coaching Education and Development

Institute for the Study of Youth Sports

Michigan State University





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