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Helping a Sore Loser Become a Winner

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Stephanie, aged 4, stamps her feet in frustration when she loses a game of cards with her older brother.

Allan, aged 9, whines, blames the pitcher, and flings down his bat when he misses the ball.

Suellen, aged 16, cries bitterly when she comes in second in a swim meet.

Four-year-old Stephanie is not yet able to verbalize her frustration about losing, and her behavior is not unusual for her age. What's okay for a four-year-old, however, is not okay for an older child. Allan and Suellen, although disappointed, can be expected to react in a more socially appropriate way.

What makes a kid a sore loser?

No one likes to lose, but for some kids losing is a mortal blow to their self-esteem. Why? There are several reasons:

  • Individual temperament is one factor; each child is born with a particular temperamental style and some tend be easily upset, while others take things in their stride.

  • Some sore losers are overly concerned about what other people think of them, so when they lose, their self-esteem plummets and they believe they're not as good as others. Losing reinforces their belief that they can't win, that others are better than they are. While it's natural for kids compare themselves to others, our culture sometimes overemphasizes competitiveness, and for many kids winning is the only way to prove they're better than others.

  • Models matter most of all. Many kids who are sore losers can be copying the behavior they see in their parents, coaches or other adults who are important to them. Kids who are sore losers may have parents who are sore losers. Parents can become overly involved in their children's activities and have unrealistic expectations for success. Some parents, unwittingly or intentionally, can transmit the message that winning is all-important.

How parents can help a ‘sore loser' become a winner:

  • Acknowledge your child's feelings. Let her know it is okay to feel angry, disappointed, sad, etc. when she loses.

  • Insist that kids play fairly. Explain the rules of the game before beginning, and don't let the child bend the rules.

  • Don't always let the child win - let him experience losing.

  • Praise your child for doing her best rather than focusing on winning.

  • When he wins, teach him to respect the feelings of a person who loses.

  • Praise her when she's a good sport about losing.

  • Don't immediately ask quot;did you win?" after a game.

  • Find ways to help her feel successful even if she hasn't won.

  • Notice when he's improving at something.

  • Provide opportunities for success such as practicing and building on skills she's already mastered.

  • Encourage children to be aware of their progress, not on the number of games they win.

  • Watch television coverage of sports and other events and discuss how players deal with losing and winning.

  • If your child wants to be on a team, look for a coach that emphasizes team play and skill building rather than focusing on winning.

It's been found that sore losers have more trouble than other children in making and sustaining friendships as they grow older, a fact that highlights the importance of helping children develop realistic reactions about disappointment as well as success.