It can be a bit of a problem when your child is extremely competitive and doesn’t take losing very well. My son is that kind of a person. He has a complete meltdown if someone beats him in anything relevant to a 7-year old boy’s life, like top trumps, Junior Articulate or a party game at his or someone else’s birthday party. I’m talking gallons of tears, sulking, and self-initiated withdrawal from the group, usually behind the sofa or in the toilet for 30 minutes.
It is not only competitive sport that can be a problem, but smaller things can also stress him out. For instance, he didn’t want to play football at his new school to start with because he was one of the weakest players (because his sports in his previous school were tennis and Jujitsu). And recently he was upset and said that he thought is the least popular boy amongst the girls in his class, partly because none of the girls gave him a card on Valentines Day. I think he takes these matters to heart and thinks he is somehow a failure, even though we try to tell him that (a) he can’t be good at a sport if he hasn’t practiced, (b) he should not worry about a lack of female suitors for another 7 or 8 years, and that (c) he is one of the best ones in baseball (and arm-wrestling!) in his school and the best one in English in his class (given that he is the only native speaker of English in his class, while the majority of his classmates are monolingual native speakers of Japanese).
In addition, we have tried to discuss these things with him many times and we’ve talked about good sportsmanship, shaking hands, the usefulness of realizing that (usually) no-one can win everything – that it would be boring for everyone else if one person always won. We’ve even said that it is fine to be disappointed if you lose (I mean who wouldn’t!) but bite your tongue and think ‘OK, that didn’t go well, but next time I’ll do better’. But no – he wants to be best in everything he does, every time.
When with family, him having a tantrum over losing a game is mundane and not a big deal, but when there is an event outside the home, I get worried.
Now we get to the point.
My son’s school had a sports day a week ago, and because we know he cannot take losing very well, we had several chats with him beforehand to prepare him for the fact that he might not be the fastest or strongest child there. We emphasized that sports days are meant for people to have fun – and winning something is a bonus. And he seemed to be mentally ready for the day.
It all started well. The kids were put into teams and the teams competed in a ‘circuit training’ style of fun activities like a sack race or an event in which they had to throw a rubber chicken as far as they could. After these leisurely group activities, they got down to business: the actual competitions. The sprint – my son’s favourite event – was a disaster. In my son’s heat, him and four of his classmates started neck to neck. My son was in second place, but about 5 meters before the finish line his school cap fell off his head in the wind. In a blink of an eye, he turns around to get the hat, and so came last in his heat. From the spectators’ area I could see that my son was devastated, but he managed to resist the tears. I, on the other hand, wanted to lynch whoever thought it was a good idea to instruct the children to wear their school caps during the sprint. It was a scorching April day so the kids wearing their caps was imperative, but they should have been told to hold the hats in their hand while running the race. I mean, at least another three children in other heats had the same fate as my son that day.
So, my son learned some important things for his future school sports days. (1) Even if your school insists on you wearing a cap during a sprint, don’t and (2) if they threaten to withdraw your scholarship due to your refusal to wear the cap, wear the bloody cap but remember not to turn back to pick it up if it falls off during the race.
They then had the relay, tug of war, and teachers’ races and then gave medals/cups to the individual winners and teams that had won. Although my son’s team won the tug of war and their teachers won the teachers’ relay, for some reason my son’s team got only one acknowledgement at the ceremonies, while the other teams got several. I could see my son sitting there on the ground with his team members, resting his chin on his hands, biting his lip, getting paler and paler and looking disappointed. As soon as the ceremonies were over I went to get him. When he saw me, his bottom lip started to quiver and tears appeared in his eyes. Those tears were followed by a further litre or two of tears, swollen eyes, and a bright red face, to the point that some of my son’s school friends came to ask if he was ok.
My son and I had a chat about the sports day at home, and tried to analyze why he got so upset. And that seemed to help a little. However, still now, a week later, my son thinks about the day and kicks himself for not winning. He says things like: ‘If only I hadn’t dropped the hat’ and ‘If only I hadn’t stopped to pick up the hat’. I feel sorry for him and wish I had burned that bloody hat before the race. Then, yesterday he walked around our apartment wearing a pair of new trainers and said: ‘If only I had had these trainers on the sports day – I would have won’. I decided it was time to have a serious chat with him (involving some detail about where humans come from).
You see, I am at least as competitive as my son and hate being bad at something. I guess that’s where he gets his competitiveness from. Importantly, I don’t want him to turn out like me. As an example, once I was in the middle of playing squash with my husband when in a state of rage I run out of the squash court and hit the squash ball into the car park whilst shouting: ‘This ball does not obey the laws of physics!’
I also can’t get motivated to lose weight unless I join a Weightwatchers type class where I am pitched in competition against other women/men and have the opportunity to grind their face into the ground with my weight loss feats.
My husband is quite competitive as well although maybe not as much as me. For example, he regularly runs marathons knowing full well he can’t win the race. I would never enter a competition unless I thought there was a chance I could win.
So, I think that my son needs to have a better understanding than me that winning a sprint at the school’s sport day, being the best in spelling bee, or being accepted to Oxford or Cambridge when 18 may or may not happen.
I told him that he has already won the biggest and the most important race. Even if he didn’t win any competitions in his life, he won the one that mattered – the one in which he competed against several hundred million competitors. The race which meant that it is him who is here with us worrying about losing a sprint at the school sports day, and not another little boy or girl who might not have greenish-brown eyes, and ginger hair, and a jokey personality.
The realization that he’s already ‘run’ his most important race and won it, seemed to put school sports days in perspective. At least it made him feel better for the day.
All those children at my son’s school’s sports day, all children at every school’s sports days, or in fact, everyone at a school or elsewhere has won the most important race of their life: The race for life. Perhaps all of us competitive types need to keep that in mind when we feel like storming out of a squash court and hitting squash balls across a car park screaming ‘This ball does not obey the laws of physics!’.