You might think being a high achiever and a good loser are mutually exclusive. It stands to reason after all that if you set great store by accomplishing your goals, not doing so will come as a proportionate disappointment.
This logic seems to be played out on the public stage by high profile figures such as the tennis players who throw down their rackets when they miss a match point, the footballers who angrily question the referee’s decision, the politicians who rail against election results and the celebrities who tantrum when their star is eclipsed by another.
Those who are brimming with drive can indeed be ambushed by envy, frustration and resentment when they fail to arrive at their desired destination. But, as it says in the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”
Being a good loser is an achievement in itself but it is easier said than done, particularly if your entire identity is wrapped up in coming in at the top and outcomes are interpreted as final. This is where education plays a crucial role, both at home and at school and where children’s storybooks such as Sally Sore Loser by Frank Sileo can help little ones learn to lose.
Settling for second best should not of course become an aim in itself. Competition is always healthy as long as it does not degenerate into an exercise of comparing ourselves with others. The key is to compete with ourselves. No one has pointed this out more succinctly than Max Ehrmann who wrote in his 1920s poem Desiderata, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
King’s College Alicante counsellor and Sinews psychologist, Irene Magallón González, explains, “The most important thing is to teach them to compete; to learn from your opponents, to respect them and also to respect the competition.”
Naturally, every parent and teacher wants the children in their care to excel. The trick is to place the onus on interior rather than exterior factors, for both winning and losing.
“Whether you win or lose, you should always attribute the outcome to factors you can control and have controlled,” says Head of Physical Education at King’s College Murcia, Lewis Ryland, who recently gave an assembly on the art of winning and losing.
“That basically turns it into an intrinsic process, even in team events,” he says. “For example, if you win, you would say ‘We won because we put in lots of effort, or because we trained well and we were good.’ This motivates you to continue with the process and not revel in the failures of others, which in turn makes you a good winner.”
When it comes to losing, the same thought process applies. “You might say, ‘We lost because we didn’t work hard enough, or because we are not quite good enough… yet!’” explains Lewis. “The fact you can control your effort and your ability means you can improve them and therefore losing becomes a learning process rather than a failure.”
As Lewis points out, the value of attributing our success or failure to internal factors applies as much in the classroom as on the playing field. “We don’t need to worry what grade the person sitting next to us has,” he says. “It is our grade that matters and the factors we can work on to improve it!”
This approach is one that King’s promotes from an early age. “It is something we try and instil in our pupils daily and particularly through PSHE [Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education],” says Sharmila Gandhi, Acting Head of King’s College Alicante. “Children have got to learn early on that we can’t always be first in everything but if we persevere and keep working at it, we can improve and achieve what we want in life.”
Sharmila goes on to explain that through the school’s various programs the students learn to celebrate the achievements of others as well as their own. “Ultimately, we are helping them to develop a life skill whereby, later on in life, if they don’t get into the university of their dreams or manage to secure the job they hoped for, it is not the end of the world,” she says. “We work with them to see what they could do better, how they need to improve and encourage them to continue and never give up.”