How to Stop “Poor Loser” Attitudes and Boost Sportsmanship

by | Aug 11, 2009 | Character and Moral Intelligence

Michele Borba

REALITY CHECK: “I should have won.” “They ought to fire the coach.” “I could have gotten the right answer. The teacher doesn’t like me.” “If I were on a better team I’d win.” Sound familiar? They’re all symptoms of a deadly youth ailment called “Poor Loser” and it’s spreading among our youth.

Watching any kid be a poor loser is embarrassing, but when the kid is yours, it’s downright humiliating. Sure, your son or daughter may be the best drummer in the band, have the highest-grade point average in the class, be the best gymnast on the squad, or the fastest sprinter in town, but the moment she starts blaming others, making excuses, arguing, or booing, her skills no longer matter. What everyone sees instead is just a poor loser, and that’s a tough image to erase.

So what do you do? (Believe me, wearing a paper bag over your face to escape humiliation will get old after awhile). What you need is a good makeover plan to rid your kid of this bad attitude, and that’s where I can help. With a new school year approaching (honest, it’s almost here!), and all those swim lessons, soccer games, gym meets and other very public kid gatherings going on under parents watching eyes, there’s no time better than the present to start in. Here are solutions to help you make real change happen and end that bad attitude once and for all.

 1.    Confront your behavior. Kids aren’t born poor losers, so ask yourself where is your kid learning this behavior? Are you modeling good sportsmanship? Do you make excuses for your own difficulties? Blame your boss when something goes wrong? Yell at the coach? Criticize your kid’s teachers in front of them?  Your kid is watching. What can you do to be better example of good sportsmanship for your kid?

 2.    Call “foul” on your kid on the first hint of losing attitude. Each and every time your kid shows that bad attitude (he makes an excuse, blames others, can’t accept criticism, boos, criticizes the teacher, coach, sibling), call him on it. Let him know plain and simple that kind of attitude isn’t going to be tolerated any more. If he exhibits a losing attitude with others, take him aside and tell him what you noticed: “I heard you criticizing the teacher for your mistake,” “You were fighting with the coach…” or “You blamed all your teammates.” 

 3.    “Red card” any uncivil, aggressive behavior. Spell out your expectations: if your kid displays bad sportsmanlike behavior again, he will leave the game (play group, scout meeting, or whatever) on the spot or apologize. Your child has to recognize that he must be considerate of other people’s feelings, and if he is not, he just simply may not participate. And if your child does display any aggressive, insulting, or rude behavior that goes over your line—such as booing, hitting, or cheating—remove him from the activity.

 4.    Emphasize good sportsmanship. Some families have a personal motto that represents good sportsmanship: “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” “If you can’t play nicely, you don’t play,” “Winning isn’t everything.” You might choose your family’s favorite, hang up a few posters on the fridge, and repeat it again and again until kids can recite it without reminders.

 5.    Find teachable moments to show the right way to handle defeat. Kids need to learn that everyone suffers defeat, but there is a right (and wrong) way to handle setbacks. And the best lessons are those teachable moments. Use them: While watching the Olympics, a quiz or even a reality TV show, say, “There’s only going to be one winner. Let’s watch to see what the losers do. See—they’re shaking hands with their opponents.” Or “That was a tough competition. Did you notice how some of the kids acted who lost? They were complaining the event wasn’t fair. They sure didn’t act like good sports.”

 6.    Teach your child to encourage her teammates. Good sports and good losers support and encourage each other. One way to help your kid be more encouraging is to teach the “two praise rule.” It’s simple: you must praise your peers at least twice before the event ends. Help your kid think of a few encouraging comments—for example, “Great job!”, “Super answer!” “Amazing play!” Then suggest he practice the rule at any group activity.

 7.    Teach how to lose gracefully. Not everyone can win; so we need to teach our kids how to accept victory as well as defeat–and do so gracefully. If we don’t, our kids won’t know how to handle their loss and because they lack that skill, they often look like poor losers. You could help your child learn a statement to say to herself to bounce back from defeat: “Nobody’s perfect.” “I can turn this around.” “I can handle this.” Show how you cope with defeat, so your kid can model your example. Create a phrase together your child can say when he suffers defeat so she sounds like a graceful loser—for example: “Good race!” “That was close.” “Let’s try again tomorrow.” “Wow, I’m impressed.” Help him practice it at home so he can confidently say it to peers.

Tuning up good sportsmanship is about how to help our kids play the game called life—and how to play it well. We must replace a poor losing attitude with those glorious old homespun values of fairness and forgiveness. So roll up your sleeves, and let the attitude makeover begin! 

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Portions of this article are adapted from Michele Borba’s latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (Jossey-Bass) which is available for order now: