A Losing Proposition
Maybe, just maybe, when it comes to parenting, winning isn’t all.
MY DAUGHTER HAS BEEN on the same soccer team since she was six. Every year her skills have improved, even as her mother has remained a benchwarmer at the game of spectating. At the final whistle of one late-season match last year I broke away from my absorbing conversation with our star striker’s little sister—about the unbelievableness of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate pretzels, about what Bradley Cooper really sees in Renée Zellweger—to blurt, “Who won?” Every parental head on the sidelines whipped around in disbelief.
“Who won?” my fellow soccer mom Wynne asked incredulously, though she should have known by then that I’m not exactly made of killer instincts. For her part the aptly pseudonymed Wynne tracks every last touch and assist. She wants nothing more than a triumphant season. Wants it for her daughter, wants it for herself—hard to say where the former ends and the latter begins among the rabidly competitive parents overrepresented on the sidelines of the high-achieving soccer teams known as “select.”
Where rec teams accept every comer, select teams are filled via competitive tryouts. They feature trained coaches, costlier commitments, and matches in other counties, even states. My kid’s whole team went select a couple seasons ago—sort of a neighborhood-based, farm-team version we parents proudly disparage as “select lite.” So we fancy ourselves a little saner than the neurotically competitive parents we see going red in the face on the sidelines of other select matches.
This season, changes in the select league have left those faces something closer to bloody maroon. Last spring the governing body for soccer in Seattle, the Seattle Youth Soccer Association, reorganized Seattle’s select teams, uniting all the kids from disparate leagues into a single league called Seattle United. SYSA held that the consolidation was meant to unify and streamline—but instead it ignited ferocious controversy among parents who felt that the shift away from the premier select league, the Emerald City Football Club, would compromise their child’s best interests.
The reorg, of course, has gotten the parents even more invested in the matches this season, as they’re now more than athletic contests; they’re proving grounds for parents’ worst fears. And you thought select soccer parents were overinvolved before.
Whether Seattle United will serve my child’s best interests I too am looking to answer. But to be frank—and please don’t tell Wynne I said this—I’m not sure what those best interests are. Sure, we’ve told our kids since they could kick a ball that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. The reason we have to tell them that in the first place is winning is so obviously the desired end. We’d all rather win than lose. Duh.
But standing on the select sidelines has born in me a startling heresy I’m not keen to say out loud: Winning is not my highest goal for my child.
I’m not talking about excellence here. The skill of her coaches and teammates is why we went select in the first place. But athletic mastery is achievable with hard work in a way that athletic victory only might be. Parents keen on raising goal-oriented children know that winning is a maddening whim of the fates, subject to vagaries that may have nothing to do with work. A teammate’s good night’s sleep. An opponent’s bad burrito.
But working hard? That’s a goal. Six years ago after my daughter’s inaugural season every first-grade girl on the roster toddled home with a trophy taller than she was. We parents chuckled mordantly over a culture so obsessed with self-esteem it would lavish hardware on every member of a team still too young to keep score.
Now I think that rewarding the effort for its own sake was the right thing to do. For me, 12 years of parenting has made that the new duh. Because rewarding victory reinforces values that few enlightened parents want to teach, like that winners are worthy in a way that losers are not. Triumphalism may be the American narrative, but that doesn’t mean I want it to become my daughter’s. Ask any mom or dad, and the really good ones will tell you that the really valuable lessons for their children come from losing.
Nothing tells us more viscerally what we need to improve. Nothing else really teaches that winning isn’t everything, or that doing our best is the only actual triumph. Watching my daughter swagger off a field of victory may be satisfying, but it’s a shallower satisfaction than watching her earn poise and equanimity on the field of defeat. From what I’ve seen it’s the losers who learn that basic of mental health: to locate their self-worth outside the realm of competition. If that is true—why are parents so almighty driven to produce winners?
At a recent memorial service, a fellow I know eulogized the man who raised him. “He taught me how to fix a car,” he said. “He taught me how to catch a fish. He taught me how to treat a lady. And he taught me how to lose.” In the inner-city neighborhood where he came up—a culture in which being dissed was grounds for retribution—pride depended on outward displays of superiority. Here, a man taught a boy a lesson that would elevate his prospects for his whole life: how to lose with his pride undiminished.
As I look down the sidelines at the bunched foreheads and pulsing carotid arteries of my fellow soccer parents, I know that that’s the worthier lesson for today’s kids, probably by a mile. I also know in my sinking heart that it’s never gonna play in Peoria. “Why does Coach insist on giving kids experience in every position?” roars an exasperated Wynne. “We’re never going to win that way, and these kids need some wins! To stay interested in playing the game!”
I may not be paying much attention to the score, but the one who needs to win appears to be in no danger of losing interest.