Learning to lose

By Jenni Halem / Contributor.

The Olympic Creed:

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.”

It’s that time again, the Olympic Games are almost upon us. I must admit, I love watching Olympic swimming, well any swimming but especially the Olympics.  These folks are at the top of their game, typically swimming faster than they ever have before.  I know kids across the world will be watching and dreaming about their own Olympic debut.   And parents, too, will be hyped up to push their children to practice harder, faster, longer in hopes that they will become the best within their chosen sport. It makes sense because so long as you start early, practice longer and harder than the other guy and always have your eyes on the gold medal you should make it to the top…right? Not so fast.  While it’s exciting to watch these great athletes compete at the highest level, one must also remember the journey they took to get there.

Show me any great Olympic athlete and I’ll show you one who got there by learning to lose.   Winning doesn’t just happen, it’s a process of twist and turns, challenges and strategy, and failures and triumphs.  To only look at the end result of winning denies you the valuable lesson of the struggle to get there.   I believe the greatest youth coaches understand the basic philosophy that to produce a top-level athlete, you must focus on the short-term goals, lay out a path to achieve them, and once achieved move to a different and more challenging goal.  It’s a constant process and unique to everyone.  What works for some won’t work for others.   Along the way the athlete will need to identify weaknesses and they will need to learn strategies to overcome obstacles.  What’s the simplest way to identify weaknesses?  You guessed it…trial and error or in other words…losing.  The greatest athletes have learned to increase their challenges while being brave enough to risk losing in the process.

A parent once asked me for advice on how he could motivate his child to work harder. The answer might be one of the simplest and most difficult things to do.  You must teach your child to love what they are doing.   I promise you that every Olympic swimmer will tell you they absolutely love the sport itself.  Oh sure, there are times they probably hate it like at 4:30 am when they are dipping a toe into a freezing cold pool, or when they missed their qualifying time by 1/100th of a second, or my personal favorite, when the coach says “Ok, we are doing that set over again”.  But the motivation to get back in and do it all again is based on the simple fact that they love what they are doing.  There has been research done on why children fall out of love with a sport.  One main reason is too much emphasis on “winning” and not enough on losing and picking yourself up again.

How can parents help?  I’m so glad you asked.  Parents need to remember that the opportunity to reinforce the passion is within the struggle and not in the end result.   You may not have won the heat but did you get a personal best time, do a flip turn for the first time, or finally execute a nearly flawless start?  Celebrate the smaller goals and help set up the next challenge.  Your team may not have won the meet, but what did you learn from the competition that will help you tomorrow and the next day? I believe it was Confucius who said “our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

So this summer when we all are glued to the TV watching the greatest of the great compete for Olympic glory, know that their road traveled was not a straight line but one with peaks and valleys and none of them got to be great without first learning how to lose.

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