Over the summer I was playing a game of air hockey against my then 5 year-old son Christopher. He and a friend were playing my daughter Kai and I. Christopher and his teammate hung in there for a while, but Kai and I came out on top by at least five or six goals. Kai and I went over to shake hands after the match, and Christopher very firmly told us, with tears welling up in his eyes, “I won.” I told him, “No Christopher, it was really fun to play a good game, but Kai and I scored more points – we won.” His face grew more and more red with anger and disappoint, (and probably a little embarrassment for losing to his 4 year-old sister), and he told me, “No, I won. Really, I won.” From there, sibling arguments began, and the tears started to fall.
As we parents often have to do in these moments, I remember having to hold back my urge to laugh, (or even smile!), at the hilarity of Christopher so firm in not giving us any credit and not backing down on having “won”, after not only losing the match, but at a five to six point deficit. I also remember thinking about this instance on the car ride home, again later that evening, and on separate occasions since then. Yes, this was a teachable moment – one to show Kai how to be a good winner, and how to help Christopher be a good loser – but that air hockey match made me realize something: these aren’t things that we can command our kids to be, or even really fully explain to them how they should be done. Winning and losing, conflict and resolution, failure and recovery – these are all things Christopher and Kai will learn from going to school and being on a team, from participating with others and working together to be sportsmanlike winners and gracious losers. Learning to handle disappoint, differences, and conflict the right way.
This personal story from my life reminded me of a part of my new book, Athleadership¸ which will be on shelves in early 2014. Here’s a sneak peek at Athleadership with the excerpt on competition, conflict, and resolution:
“Fortunately, sports give kids a better framework for resolving conflict. Simply by joining a competitive sport, a child is voluntarily entering conflict: The opposing team or athlete is always standing in the way of your child and his or her goals. Conflict is seen as a challenge. Is the team or athlete up for the challenge of overcoming the opponent?
And the solution can take many faces, but one thing is certain: No outsider can rush onto the field to save the day. Instead, athletes learn to try a variety of different solutions to address conflict. Perhaps more importantly, they learn to keep on trying all the way to the end.
Another reason that participating in sports allows a young athlete to turn into an athleader is this: Children who play sports learn that conflict is not always negative. In fact, the more conflict a child has on the field – that is, the more competitive the other team or athlete is – the more your child will grow. Competition is a necessary and natural part of athletics. It serves as a healthy driving force that motivates a student-athlete to reach for the top. It brings out the best in an athlete.
That said, competition, and the conflict it brings with it, can turn negative. Ideally, competition should always be friendly. Ideally, opposing teams should always part ways with sportsmanship and respect. Certainly, the conflict that occurs during games will, at times, be heated, but at the end of the day, competition gives young athletes an important framework upon which they can grow into athleaders who handle conflict with respect and sportsmanship.
Of course, this is not always the case, particularly when dealing with young athletes who do not yet know how to control their emotions. Rival teams push each other’s buttons. Conflict arises within a team when one team member decides that another team member caused a loss. Or perhaps two team members simply do not get along. Uniting people from different backgrounds, philosophies, and talents can often lead to conflict.
Though this seems unfortunate at first glance, remember that all conflict offers a child a priceless opportunity to learn how to resolve conflict. No employer will ever want to hire a team member who does not have experience resolving conflict. In fact, if a child is able to experience conflict within a safe framework, the child will learn invaluable skills and grow into a solutions-oriented athleader.
A team experiencing conflict amongst its own will find it much more difficult, if not impossible, to succeed if it does not find a way to work through this conflict. Because of this necessity, individuals learn quickly in sports that conflict must be managed. Instead of bickering, the team looks to find common ground and solutions that allow the team to overlook differing backgrounds and outside beliefs. They learn that on the playing field, it doesn’t matter.
The core used strategies used to resolve quarrels on the field can be transferred to life at home, at work, or in school. Throughout life, athleaders will be brought together with people of various backgrounds and personalities. Large or small, most companies require people to work together. Those who rise up to the top of their field will more than likely be able to handle themselves in diverse situations and will have developed useful conflict-management skills ahead of time.
The same is true for friendships, partnerships, and even marriage. Knowing how to listen, communicate, and practice self-control are integral parts of successful unions.”