Learning From Losing: Why Kids Should Compete

I’ve been thinking about North Hill Elementary School’s decision to minimize the competitive spirit at its spring field day. The flyer sent to the students’ homes said that everyone is a winner, so the field day events would minimize competition and instead be about having fun.


The longer I think about this, the more it bothers me. All I remember about my elementary school field days is eating hotdogs and getting a bad sunburn. I was a nerd, even in fifth grade. I wasn’t athletic and I didn’t like sports. I was one of the kids North Hill is worried about — guaranteed to lose — but they don’t seem to realize there was no way I was having fun at an athletic event, competitive or not.

Even if you set aside this little flaw in their logic, you have to wonder how they hope to achieve it. Sports are competitive by nature. How do you have a race without competing? What do you tell the kids? “Run in that direction if you feel like it”? What is the incentive to act? How do you know when an event is over? The mind boggles.

I’m the girl who broke her glasses in high school by catching the baseball with her face, and I still think minimizing “the competitive ‘urge to win’ ” is a bad idea. It ignores the importance of the lessons we learn when we compete, whether we win or lose. Academically, I was a winner. But I got plenty of experience losing in high school.

I joined the marching band my junior year as a member of the flag corps. I loved learning the routines and the precision of the movements timed to the music. Like most marching bands, we performed at half-time during football games and marched in parades. But we also competed against other bands in competitions.

Linganore High School Marching Band, 1982-1983
Linganore High School Marching Band, 1982-1983

We lost constantly, often placing last.

There were reasons for our poor scores. Our school was smaller than the other schools in the area, so our band had less than seventy members, and ten of them didn’t play an instrument. We had too many reeds and not enough brass, which made our sound even thinner.

Despite hours of practice, we made mistakes. My favorite was when one half of the band got half a measure off from the other half. Chaos ensued, and yes, that embarrassing moment happened during a competition. There was even video of it, so we could watch it again. And again. And again. *shudder*

As Captain of the Guard, I got to stand with the drum major in front of the crowd as we received last place. I still saluted crisply and held my head high. Even though my best was not enough to win, I learned to be proud of the effort I’d made.

As a loser, I also learned about winning. At one event, I had to listen to an excited drum major gloating under his breath to his captain of the guard as the announcer gave out the awards in reverse order. “I think we’ve got it,” repeated over and over seems benign enough now, but at the time, it was the thing that made me feel truly awful about losing. To this day, I hate that guy.

A gracious and humble winner gives a gift to the losers. He puts the competition in proper perspective and reminds everyone that this is just today’s outcome. Next time can be different. Today’s failing performance can be improved with effort and could lead to a future win.

We are not a winner or loser at everything forever. How can kids realize this if we don’t let them compete to begin with?

Shielding children from the disappointments and lessons that go with competition will backfire. Employers are not going to stop promoting their best workers, or give everyone in the building the same raise. There are times in life where performance matters and you may not make the cut. Better to learn young that you do not get everything you want, not even everything you try for, than to promote a sense of entitlement or expectations that are completely unrealistic.

I still look back on my time with the band fondly, which sounds nuts considering we were “losers”. But I loved marching. We liked what we were doing and the people we were doing it with. We would have loved to win, but losing didn’t keep band from being fun. Today, I choose my work and my play with what I love in mind. There’s no guarantee I will succeed at what I’m doing (although I certainly hope I will win a few), so I need at least to make sure I enjoy how I am spending my time.

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