“I’m not a loser!?!”
“What do you call someone that wins?”
“Did you lose the game?”
“Then what do you call someone who loses?”
The battlefield was set. The two teams were to face off in a modified version of blob tag. Blob tag is when a small group of people who are connected try and tag others while trying to stay connected. If the entire team was able to stay connected and tag someone from the other team in less than 30 seconds than the blob won the round. If the team disconnected at all or failed to tag a member of the opposite team then the blob lost the round. If you won 3 rounds your team won the battle. Winning team moves on. Losing team must do a challenge.
The challenges set for the losing teams were at times silly and embarrassing (like flapping your arms like a bird for 30 seconds) while other times a bit more offensive. Exactly what they said, I’ll describe later. Just know that it was designed to get the students attention. To shock as it were. The goal of such a shock was to bring their attention to the fact that they had just lost… and losing was not the goal.
I stress the fact that losing was not their goal, that teams should desire to win, because the atmosphere and region in which I teach has become apathetic to success. The idea that losing is part of competition and thus should be accepted has morphed into the idea that losing is inevitable and so there is no need to feel any emotions whatsoever. Case and point.
The Varsity Basketball team I coached lost to another school by 40 points. They had not played well at all and were destroyed in every area of the game. What I expected to see after such a loss, disappointed looks and general melancholy, were replaced with smiling faces and a joyous raucous as they left the court and piled into the bus. Not one of them seemed to care at all that they had just been humiliated. I did not know how to handle it. My players not only accepted the loss but it had no effect on them whatsoever. It was shocking!
The same reactions began to pop up in my PE class as well. While trying to maintain a sensitivity for the mental and social development of my students I still try to push them to care about the outcome of the game. It is not the only measure of the work they put in but it is a measure of the work they put in. We hear sports announcers frequently comment on the fact that when it came down to it, one team just wanted it more. I want my students to understand the difference. Because, it is a fine line between understanding failure is a part of growth and becoming complacent in defeat.
So upon losing in battle, what did I have my students say?
“I’m a loser.”
Now understand that I was very jovial about the whole situation and that I have a great relationship with my students. Still, I asked them to repeat that line to themselves. Predictably, a few students retorted that they weren’t losers. And I agreed. I told them that as people they were not losers, but considering they just lost, that technically made them losers. I made sure to process this concept with the class at the end of the period but it had the desired effect. They were foreseeably uncomfortable with being “losers”.
The following class showed students who were much more motivated on the battlefield. Since then, I have seen a marked improvement in most students’ attitudes towards competition. Yet there remains the question of sensitivity. Some would see this improvement in motivation as one driven by fear and shame, two traits we do not want to instill in our children. But is there such a thing as a healthy fear? A healthy shame?
I think there is. If our children grow up indifferent to success than they will not work hard to achieve it. If they are not uncomfortable with performing poorly then they will develop a habit of mediocrity that will most likely continue into teen and adulthood. We should teach our children that failure is a great way to learn, yes, but inevitably, their goal should always be to succeed. Yes, accept losing as a part of the growth process, but never accept that losing is inevitable. If we fail to discourage this acceptance of the inevitable defeat then our children will become more and more comfortable with losing. And that comfort might well lead them to become what they never feared in the first place.