Winning Over the Fear of Losing

Every second grader hates to lose. Building a healthy relationship with defeat is not easy for adults, much less for 7-year-olds. At TYO’s summer program, youth learn critical socioemotional skills through play. This involves lots of engagement, excitement, and fun, but with games also comes the possibility of losing.

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When students are “out” of the game, they often stalk back to the sidelines, sometimes stomping their feet, crossing their arms, pouting their lips, or all of the above. But in our second-grade class, we make sure there is a teacher or volunteer at the sidelines, every time, telling that student “good job” and giving them a high five. This two-second interaction transforms their pouts into smiles, their tense posture into a loose one, and they happily join their friends waiting for another round of the game.

We celebrate the winners too, and the act of winning, but we equally celebrate effort and perseverance. Psychologists Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck studied the effects of different kinds of praise on children completing a set of puzzles, which has become the cornerstone of theories related to grit and growth mindset. One group of students was praised for their intelligence and ability, and the other for their effort and hard work. The second group overwhelmingly chose to then complete a harder puzzle, while the majority of the first group chose to continue with puzzles at the same level.

By developing a positive response to losing, our students cultivate a mindset in which their potential is unlimited, not fixed. Rather than fearing a lack of inherent ability, they believe they can achieve success through hard work. In the words of one of my students, they come to view losing as something that can help us “become stronger.”

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While at the beginning of the summer losing caused frequent outbursts, after continuous conversations with students about the potential benefits of losing, the vast majority are able to quickly accept their loss and determine to try again next time. Some are even able to laugh at their mistakes, a significant shift from the first week where mistakes sparked feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness.

At a global level, common responses to losing often involve retaliation, debilitating humiliation, or an insatiable need to dominate others. TYO’s approach to fostering resilience and tenacity through play is critical for developing the next generation of leaders. Whether on a soccer field, at school, or in the workplace, these are the young people who will have the self-esteem and confidence to choose the path of perseverance, and inspire others to do the same.

Marissa, Summer 2019 International Intern