I enjoy watching youth soccer these days, especially when one of my young granddaughters is competing. A wonderful thing happens after the matches: Both teams take turns extending their arms and holding hands to make a tunnel to celebrate their opponents, who run through laughing and cheering one another.
As a match ended a few weeks ago, one little girl lay on the ground, arms and legs flailing, as she screamed and cried because her team had lost. Her mother tried, without success, to comfort and convince her daughter that she should “be a good sport” and celebrate the other team, “just as you would want them to do if your team had won,” but she would have none of it.
We fancy ourselves to be the American people imagined in that quote from the early-20th-century sports writer Grantland Rice, “For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He marks — not that you won or lost — but how you played the Game.”
Conversely, our current national reality might be more accurately expressed in another quote attributed to the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
George Siering, director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Indiana University, remarks, “In an American culture obsessed with winning, failure is something we try to avoid at all cost, as we often associate failure with weakness, lack of ability, even moral deficiency.”
“Winning contributes to a child’s self-esteem,” notes Barbara Willer, of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “But the flip side is that children must learn that they can’t win all the time.” The ability to lose and win graciously are two of the most important skills children learn through playing sports.
In addition to sports, young people are taught significant lessons by learning to play an instrument, raising farm animals to show at the county fair, or engaging in debate. These activities promote qualities essential for success, such as accepting responsibility, working hard, collaborating with others, risk-taking, accepting criticism, and recognizing that failure — and losing — is part of learning and life.
In his book, “How Children Succeed — Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” Canadian-born journalist Paul Tough observes, “Character is not just about morality, it’s about teaching a set of skills kids need to achieve their goals.” Among these is the ability not only to accept but to embrace failure. Tough cautions, “Failure can be very scary until you experience it a few times.”
The best evidence is that youngsters who don’t experience small failures early — for example, not getting chosen to play the princess in the school play, or losing a debate — have a much more difficult time dealing with adversity later in life. Professor Siering suggests that if young people are to learn from failure, “We need to provide situations where risk and potential failures are small and manageable, where fear of failing isn’t overwhelming.”
In her research, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth identifies “grit” as essential to success. Grit allows people to work harder, give up on tasks less frequently, and persist in the face of struggle or failure.
In addition to teaching students cognitive skills that can be tested, schools must teach young people social, emotional, and interpersonal skills, as these trump IQ in the achievement of success.
Students from working and lower socioeconomic backgrounds have been found to be more resilient in the face of frustration, disappointment and failures. While these students are often referred to as being “disadvantaged,” Tough believes that children who are unused to failure are actually at a disadvantage: “They’ll go out into the world, experience some kind of setback, and it will completely derail them, because they haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to fail.”
When I think back on some of my own students, many of whom had SAT scores or high-school grades that did not predict success, I am reminded that aptitude tests don’t measure motivation. They certainly don’t tell us whether young people will keep going when things get tough, when they confront setbacks and failures.
As I walked back toward my car after that soccer match, the little jockette was still wailing and thrashing about. I was hoping her mother might pick her up and say, “You lost, get over it! Next weekend, do your best, and then make that tunnel — one way or the other.”
(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.)