When Your Kid is a Poor Sport

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It’s Saturday morning, and once again I am watching my son’s soccer game from the car. I can’t watch from the sidelines because he’s already flipped out and laid face down on the field crying. He ran into the woods when we tried to talk to him and threatened to leave. Then he sat on his soccer ball with his head hanging down.

poor sport
It helps to have support and encouragement from friends and teammates.

To be fair, he’s only six. But he’s in first grade, and with three years of soccer under his belt, I thought he would have grown out of the freak outs and poor sportsmanship he demonstrated when he was younger. When it became apparent that his bad attitude was more than a phase, my husband and I felt unsure about how to deal with our son’s big emotions.

Learning how to lose graciously is a part of life — you’re never going to be the best at everything — so it made me wonder why some people are better at handling loss than others?

In order to get some perspective, I turned to the experts. Amy Morin, LCSW — author of the international bestseller “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do” — offers practical advice in her article “7 Ways to Prevent Your Child From Being a Sore Loser.” 

At first, I cringed when I read her tips. She made me realize I have some major work to do in this department — as a parent and a person, apparently — but these steps seemed like the right place to start.

poor sport
My Soccer Rocker holding up three fingers for three goals he scored.

1. Praise your child’s efforts: My son is actually a good soccer player, and we tell him all the time that he is doing a great job. We remind him that it doesn’t matter if he scores a goal, but that he listens to his coach and helps his teammates. But he’s a wild card. Some games he plays great. Other times he gets upset if he scored two goals, but missed one. He has high expectations for himself, so I hope our continued encouragement will eventually sink in and help him see that’s it’s not just about him, but how he interacts and respects others.

2. Role model good sportsmanship: As a competitive person and a notorious sore loser, this is a struggle for me. Growing up, my parents especially bore the brunt of my frequent outbursts and immature behavior when I played softball, soccer, swimming, dance and tennis. I think that’s why it’s so hard for me to watch my son because I recognize that uncontainable frustration, and so hoped he wouldn’t have to experience the same humiliating moments that I did. This is not something I’m proud of, it’s a character flaw that’s painful to face. Although my attitude has drastically improved and my competitive streak has mellowed as I’ve gotten older, I have been known to turn a friendly game of Yahtzee into best three out of five, and I still get upset at the TV when my favorite sports teams lose.

3. Help your child understand feelings: “Teach your child about feelings and help him develop healthy coping strategies to deal with those feelings,” Morin suggests. “Validate those feelings. Talk about how it feels sad, embarrassing, and disappointing to lose. But make it clear he has options in how he deals with his uncomfortable emotions.”

4. Teach your child anger management skills: “Sore losers often throw board game pieces or say mean things to other people in a fit of rage. Help your child recognize that these types of behaviors aren’t acceptable,” says Morin. We try to follow the wise words of Daniel Tiger: “If you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”

5. Don’t let your child win: Coming from a family that loves to play games, we learned early that our aunts and uncles don’t just “let” someone win at dominoes. Of course, this means having to deal with my son’s tears or rage during large family gatherings, but it seems fitting that he learn lessons of defeat among older extended family members — who can remind him of his unsavory behavior many years from now when he’s grown out of it.

6. Ignore temper tantrums: Although it’s my instinct to ignore my son’s temper tantrum at a soccer game, I feel like other parents will judge me because it looks like I’m either not addressing his behavior or letting him get away with acting inappropriately. I know he is mostly doing this for attention (which raises a whole other can of worms….) and this mama doesn’t want to be sucked in to his drama. Once we get home and he’s settled down, we talk to him about his actions and reinforce consequences.

7. Practice being a graceful winner: As in, don’t let your kid gloat or rub it in. At the end of every game, the parents form a tunnel and all the kids from both teams run through. I like this tradition because it lets our team see the other players as real kids and not just distant opponents. 

We debated whether to sign up our son for soccer again this spring. When we asked him, he said he wanted to play, so that seemed like a good sign. I know we have a long way to go, but I hope by taking this advice into consideration it will make next season less stressful for everyone.

poor sport
My son’s soccer team got to meet the players and go on the field with the Charleston Battery.