The little five-year-olds in blue jerseys were running like cattle toward the soccer ball – bulls all mushed together. There was the occasional red player trying to squeeze into the herd, but they kept getting bowled over. The other kids in red stood there in the grass like scarecrows, only scaring no one. The black and white ball was repeatedly hitting the back of their net. And as their coach, my hands were chapped from clapping, trying to “rah-rah” my conquered troops.
The director of our youth soccer organization asked me to coach my son’s team. They had no one else to do it. I was reluctant because we all know kids listen to every other adult on Earth better than their own parent. But I said yes and my son has surprised me, in many ways actually. He listens, hustles, and waves his pom-poms for his teammates.
The first game was much harder than I had anticipated. How difficult could coaching these kids be? Play some games, let them run around, and feed them a snack, I thought. Well, my players stood petrified as ice sculptures and the other team easily scorched them.
On the car ride home, my son was stripping his legs of the sticky shin guards, socks, and cleats. The roots of his light brown curls were dark from sweat. “We did bad, huh Mommy?”
Now I was the scarecrow in the passenger seat. I was not ready for this teaching moment.
“No, honey. You guys tried really hard, and you had fun. They only beat us by four goals.”
But my son couldn’t ignore billboard-sized scoreboard in his brain. “No, Mom. The score was five to zero.”
He was right. I forgot about that last goal because I was too busy watching my stopwatch, praying it would tick faster, but it felt like the pause button was stuck.
My son took losing that first game pretty well. We’d been practicing at home because, just a few months prior, there was door-slamming and punching the wall when he was defeated. In the car, I recited the lines I was supposed to as a parent. “You tried really hard. Maybe we’ll get ‘em next time. You can’t always win.”
However, since that first game, I’ve been keeping score. Technically, I’m not supposed to in the league we play in. Plus, they’re only five. I keep track anyway. My son and most of my players tally the goals, too. When they ask, “Did we win or lose, coach?” I tell them the truth. I don’t say, “Oh, the score doesn’t matter.”
The score does matter. It always has and it always will. Learning how to lose is important, and so is learning how to win. We need to teach our kids that when we lose, you can still puff out that chest, as long as you left no regrets on that field. When you win, yes, you can puff out your chest too, but you better be humble. No gloating. If we don’t teach the true results of competition when our kids are young, we’ll have ten-year-olds throwing tantrums like toddlers because they can’t handle a loss. Or we’ll have the winners taunting the losers in a good ol' bullying session.
I want my five-year-old players to know why they shake the other team’s hands. It’s not because we both won, it’s because both teams battled and earned respect.
I’m not into saving my players’ feelings, but I’ll certainly help them deal with these emotions. You learn way more in life from being on a losing team than a winning team. Winning is easy. And losing happens, in more than just sports. Someday, my players may not get into the college they applied for, ace the test they studied for, or get the job they interviewed for. Accepting a loss doesn’t mean giving up, it means quite the opposite. It means fighting.
Since our first defeat, my son and his teammates have won every single game. Maybe they didn’t like the feeling of that lost battle, I don’t know. Either way, they learned that working hard feels much better. We may lose again, but for now, they’ve lost their scarecrow costumes and have become the herding bulls they were meant to be.