Self-Esteem Isn’t About Not Losing

This post was inspired by the son of a friend of mine.  He’s nine.  He was explaining the difference between his summer baseball team and school sports.  He said that with sports in his school everyone wins and gets a trophy, but in summer baseball they keep score and someone wins and someone loses.

I asked him how his team did and he said that they had lost all of their games.  I asked him how he was feeling about that and he gave an unbelievably astute answer.  He said “Well, it wasn’t very fun to lose, but we got better over the season and when we played teams again we could see how the score changed.  In school you never know if you’re getting better or worse because nobody is keeping track and everybody wins.”

His mom explained that his school feels that it is bad for kid’s self-esteem to lose so they don’t allow competition.  I’m hearing more and more of this.  I guess I can kind of understand it.

On the other hand, I was a competitive athlete all through school. I also competed in spelling bees, Science Olympiads, Odessy of the Mind, Whiz Quiz, the TrigStar, Social Studies Bee etc.  While being that unbelievably nerdy did nothing for my dating life, I learned lessons through competition that nothing else could have taught me and I wouldn’t give up those lessons for anything:

Take one for the Team

In the Science Olympiad you get points for each event in which you compete – one point for participating, more depending on how you finish. On the day of the Olympiad, one of the people on my team got the flu.  I was the only one who had free times during their events so I suddenly found myself participating in “Metric Estimation” and “The Periodic Table”.  Going to fairly crappy small town public schools meant that I could barely name all of the metric units of measurement let alone estimate based on them. Being a freshman meant I had not yet been introduced to the Periodic Table.  Competing meant epic failure and humiliation in front of  judges, my peers, their teachers and their parents. I did not know the information, I could not learn it in time, I was absolutely going to lose.  My coach wanted the two participation points.  I took one for the team.  We won the competition by one point.  The team is more important than you.  Sometimes you sacrifice for the sake of the other people to whom you’ve made a commitment.

Sometimes your best isn’t good enough

Sometimes you compete to the absolute maximum of your ability, you do your best, you leave everything on the field, and you still lose.  That’s just the way it is.  Maybe your competitor had more natural talent, maybe they worked harder.  Maybe both.  You can be satisfied that you’ve done your best, you can decide to change your training strategy, you can make excuses, you can decide to quit, but the only way you get to make that decision is if you give your maximum effort and still fail.  That’s when the lesson starts.  That’s when you find out who you are.

Sometimes you win when you don’t deserve it

Your team barely gets off the bus but you still find yourselves delivering a big league butt kicking to some poor hapless team who are doing their best but don’t have your training or natural talent or resources.  This always feels like crap.  You reach that moment when you choose – are you going to continue to overwhelm them and get as many points as possible or are you going to relax or play your third string or whatever and ease off on the pummeling?  You learn a lot about yourself in those moments.

Sometimes you win because of lucky breaks

Somebody comes up with a totally lucky play.  Refs make critical mistakes in your favor.  Their best player goes out with an injury.  As competitors we say “I’ll take it”  or “Better lucky than good, I guess…” but we know that it’s not the same as truly winning.

You will not always win

In the movie Fight Club the main character says “How much do you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”  In volleyball a match is made up of three games, the person who wins two games wins the match.  My freshman year our volleyball team went the entire season without losing a single game.  Not a match, a game.  We won every match in two games.  We were riding high into our Varsity season.  We lost the first game of the first match.  We got blown away.  3 to 15 I think was the score.  We were devastated.  Before we know it, it was the second game and we were down 2 to 12.  And then we made a decision.  We were going to get up off the floor and we were going to battle back.  We won that game 17 to 15.  The third game we won 25-24. I learned more from that match than I learned in the entire previous season.  The moral of the story is that if you never fall, you never learn that you can get back up.  How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never lost?

Being artificially propped up can never build self-esteem because self-esteem can’t be built, only uncovered (I blogged about this before in The Self in Self-Esteem).  Not only won’t it have the desired effect, it will only ensure that you never know what you’re made of.  You don’t know what you’ll do if you fall down, if you lose, when you think you’re ready to quit.  How can you know, when there is always someone there with a security blanket and a binky making sure that never happens?

I’m not saying that parents should be screaming at 5 year olds in T-ball.  I am saying that your kids will learn these lessons eventually.  I think it’s much less painful to learn them in Little League or as a Mathlete than when they try to get a job.  It has the added benefit of allowing them to start early – as you fall and get up you learn that falling not the end of the world, and getting up becomes a habit.

Maybe we would all do well to stop trying to avoid failure, rejection, and humiliation and  instead throw ourselves headlong toward what we truly desire and accept any failure, rejection and humiliation that comes as the opportunities that they truly are.

8 thoughts on “Self-Esteem Isn’t About Not Losing

  1. This was put so well. You articulated very clearly what I have been thinking about this, but wasn’t sure how to articulate without going to all those cliche tropes about competition being a “fact of life” or whatever. Great work as usual!

  2. I have been meaning to write a companion piece since I read your previous self esteem post. This has clinched it! You are so on the money right here! Great job!

    xo Susie

  3. This is a debate that I think will go on forever. Are kids nowadays really so vulnerable? I don’t know anymore. When does it go from protecting kids to harming them? The real world is a harsh place, yes, but not every kid needs to be traumatised to know what the “real world” is like.

  4. I have been reading for a while now. I’ve read every post from the beginning. For the most pat I agree with you. I learned a lot from competing when I was younger.

    However, being the parent of a special needs child I have to say that him being involved with the Special Olympics through his school has given him something very important. When he comes home from that field day with a medal around his neck he is beaming from ear to ear. He may not have actually “won” anything, but he didn’t lose either. His pride doesn’t come from winning. He could care less if he wins or not, his pride is in the fact that he is able to take part of something bigger than himself. That is a lesson that I’m not sure I could have taught him on my own.

    I guess what I’m saying is that the saying is true, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”, and my son is learning to play that game.

    I really hope this makes sense.

  5. These are not the same things I learned from competition. My list is: 1. I will never win at anything that takes skill unless I just happen to be competing against people who are much worse than I am, and then what’s the point? (Exceptions for things that are totally random, like the spelling bee, which, sure, there is some kind of talent/skill there, but mostly it’s about which words you get.) 2. Winning does not make me feel good about myself (seeing as how I never win except for random trials of luck or foregone conclusions) but losing sure does make me feel worthless.

    1. I would say that for most people 1 is true – if you’re competing against people who are better than you, then chances are you’re going to lose. As for 2, it sounds like you chose to look for reasons not to celebrate your victories and to feel extra bad about your defeats. For 3, that can certainly happen – then you have a choice to change your practice strategy or quit.

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