Up until he was seven, sports were a source of camaraderie, physical exercise, and lots of fun for my son. Matthew willingly participated in soccer, flag football, basketball, and baseball. Sports were a place where everyone won because no one kept score. Until we signed up for the swim team at our neighborhood pool.
That May, my family was introduced to the summer swim team experience. Neither my husband nor I had any prior knowledge to help us prepare for this new arena. There were many helpful parents who tried to prep us for the length of the meets and for the possibility of oppressive heat or violent summer thunderstorms. They told us how to pack a cooler, how many chairs to bring, how to keep a 4-year-old sibling entertained, etc. We were prepared for everything – except for our son’s first real encounter with losing.
The first meet was on a sweltering Sunday afternoon. The sun was blazing, the cool water was shimmering seductively, and the participants and parents alike were drenched in sweat. My senses were overstimulated, and I was trying to reconcile the fact that we were going to be at the meet for at least two-and-a-half hours in the hot, hot sun to watch Matthew swim for thirty seconds. My husband and I were watching young children melt down all around us; our hope was for Matthew to make it from one end of the pool to the other without being disqualified.
I’m going to blame it on the heat, rather than the bad parenting that it was, but neither my husband nor I had prepped Matthew for the probability that he was not going to win. It wasn’t something we had to think about at other sporting events thus far. I suppose we assumed he would have fun swimming his lap and that he would just somehow know that he wasn’t the fastest, based on his practices the previous weeks. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The gun went off and Matthew swam his little heart out. He wasn’t first or second or third, but he made it to the end of the lane without being disqualified (a great accomplishment in the eyes of Mom and Dad, remember?). Matthew got out of the water with a smile on his face, looked around, and saw a classmate with a ribbon and a piece of candy because he had won the heat. Matthew smiled at his friend, looked over at us, and said, “Where’s mine? I won too.” As big tears started to build up in his eyes and his lower lip began to quiver, the reality of the situation sank in. His poor little heart was breaking because he thought he won. Or if he hadn’t won, he was sure he came in second. Our hearts were breaking because we knew that this was just the beginning. There would be many losses to come. The next two meets were not much better than the first. To his credit and to the credit of his coaches, Matthew never gave up. But I wonder now: Would things have been easier if we had started watching American Ninja Warrior – that crazy-popular extreme sports show – before swim team started, rather than later that summer.
Sportsmanship is a difficult quality to teach a child unless he or she has the opportunity to see it in action. Often, televised sports programs focus on the winners. Little time is given to the losing team or opponent once the competition is finished. Viewers are often inundated with images of people crossing the finish line first, holding up a gold medal, or scoring the winning touchdown. The cameras may scan a row of defeated players or an individual who has lost a race and they look depressed. As an adult viewer, you know that life goes on for the losing athlete. But from a child’s perspective, if all you see are images of winners, how do you learn to lose? By watching American Ninja Warrior, that’s how.
We discovered the show that summer somewhere around the end of July. After watching one episode, my two kids wanted more. They watched more episodes and started creating obstacle courses in the family room to complete during the commercials; soon enough it became our official family show. We were hooked. The kids loved watching the athletes maneuver through the obstacle course; my husband and I loved the show for the interviews that took place after each athlete attempted the course. Every athlete had an opportunity to speak immediately after he or she completed the course – the successful and the unsuccessful. While this may seem inconsequential, the impact on our kids was amazing. They were learning how to lose.
The more we watched, the more the kids tried to create their own obstacle course challenges – moving from the family room to the backyard and ultimately to the playground at school. While they were working through their obstacle courses, the craziest thing started to happen. If they didn’t complete the obstacle, they would mimic the loud buzzing sound from the show, and then they would start laughing and try again. No excuses, no tears, and no whining that the other person was making fun of them. No complaining that they slipped and it shouldn’t count. They both accepted the buzz of defeat, picked themselves up, laughed, and tried again. It was magic. Our kids slowly started to understand that it is possible to be competitive and have fun, to lose gracefully, and to show admiration and respect for those who perform better than they do.
I can honestly say that I was excited about the next swim-team season. I knew it meant heat and noise, the heavy coolers to lug, and the potential for losing, but I also knew we would be more prepared for the first meet, at least emotionally. And that year, we even had the chance to contribute some advice to new swimmers and their families: Losing like a ninja warrior – whether you’re in the water or not – is the best way to lose.