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July 16, 2015

Setbacks breed success: Lessons from the USWNT's World Cup victory

Every parent wants to protect their children from hurt, disappointment, and struggle. However, both scientific research and real life evidence demonstrate the benefits of overcoming setbacks along the road to success. Although most students, athletes, and employees set out to “win” in every endeavour, most would also agree with the time-tested phrase, “winning isn’t everything.”  Winning and losing both have pros and cons, though the positive impact of failure is often harder to discern.

In a recent “Tip of the Week,” we discussed some connections between the USA Women’s World Cup championship and a wide range of executive function skills. While working toward achieving an immense goal, like a world championship, the members of the US Women’s FIFA team dedicated their time, showed commitment, created and executed plans, practiced follow-through, and more.  Perhaps most importantly, however, each player harnessed her ability to overcome failure, and worked tirelessly, despite challenge, for her entire life. Some of the US stars were even rejected from their local youth soccer teams, yet none allowed those “losses” to stop them from living their dreams.

The Pros and Cons of Winning

Educators frequently use the phrase “Success Breeds Success” to describe the impact of achievement and positive reinforcement on their students.  Successes boost confidence, and confidence inspires students to believe that they can succeed again and again. Succeeding in school, or on a specific exam or assignment, also validates the effort that students put into each project. A high grade proves that the approach or process a student used was effective; success, in turn, encourages students to repeat the same strategies and build productive study and homework habits. Students become intrinsically motivated to work hard and succeed. In short, winning makes students excited to win again, in the classroom, on the field, or in other pursuits.

Even with all these benefits, winning has a “dark side,” too. If your student has only ever known success, they may expect success as the inevitable outcome, no matter what level of effort they put into their schoolwork. Endlessly successful students may regard their successes as boring, commonplace, and not worth celebrating. When students begin to experience these feelings, they may become complacent, and gradually lose track of their goals and high performance. And when failure inevitably finds those “perpetual winners,” they rarely know how to react or rebound from a crushing defeat. (Side note: this is one of our major quibbles with the current landscape of youth sports. “Participation” trophies set an expectation that every child earns a trophy just for “showing up” rather than for working hard and achieving a goal -- personal or team. If you don’t have to work hard and/or succeed to earn a trophy, what do you gain along the way?)

The Pros and Cons of Losing

Of course, the occasional loss teaches students, athletes, parents, workers, and bosses that they must keep trying harder. Learning how to deal with loss, particularly through emotional regulation (a key executive function!), is one of the most important life lessons your child can learn and apply to their futures. After all, education is designed to prepare children for their futures as well-rounded, critically-thinking, hard-working, and resilient adults. Losing ignites your child’s desire to do better next time and to achieve what they couldn’t before. Losing also forces your child to build their self-monitoring and planning skills (additional executive functions), which allow students to step back, assess their weaknesses, develop a plan to improve, and execute it carefully. Losing asks your child to glance in the mirror and consider what he sees.

Without proper support, losing can also be devastating, especially when your child falls into the category of “perpetual winner.” Simply put, losing feels bad, and can be difficult for several different types of students. Those who have (generally) never experienced failure often do not develop to tools to cope when it inevitably does arrive. They avoid challenges because they see the possibility of losing as an imminent threat. In this way, loss can sometimes encourage “fixed mindsets,” just as it can inspire “growth mindsets.” (Learn more about “fixed” and “growth” mindsets here. When losing becomes more commonplace, students fear it less and ultimately train their problem-solving skill sets (another executive function!) along the way.

Think Twice About Letting Your Child Win

Many parents have the impulse to let their children “win” at everything. They bend the rules while playing Monopoly, slow down at the end of a race around the yard, or even ease up on discipline to protect their children from “negative” emotional experiences. But what if world championship FIFA players Morgan Brian, Kelley O’Hara, and Meghan Klingenberg, had been protected from losing in their youth? What if they never experienced significant failure?

At just 12 years old, Morgan Brian was the only member of her club team NOT to make it onto Florida’s Olympic Development Team. She says that, “It ended up being the best thing that ever happened to [her],” and that, “It was the hardest [she’d] ever worked in [her] life.”

Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, admits that, “We naturally, as parents, want to protect our children from pain. [But] sometimes kids need to experience discomfort, or sometimes great disappointment, to grow." And Brian most certainly grew into one of the best soccer players worldwide.

The Slate writer Gwendolyn Oxenham goes on to write that, “Five other key American stars described being cut—or not making the cut—at youth levels,” and many “credit their drive to become the best soccer players on the planet to that rejection.” Losing helps players and students to develop a wide range of executive functions, like emotional regulation, planning, task initiation, and follow-through, which all allow mental toughness to prevail in times of difficulty: “The mental toughness that is so often ascribed to the Americans—the mentality that has allowed the Americans to win—is rooted in failure.”

When you feel tempted to let your child win a game of “Go Fish,” consider the lessons that the FIFA World Cup Winners, and their journey to the championship, can teach us. Kelley O’Hara “cried [her] eyes out” when she got cut from a regional team, but says that when “You want something and you don’t get it, it makes you want it even more.” Meghan Klingenberg, an outside back whose defensive play was crucial to the Americans’ success, has a yellowed letter of rejection from a youth national team taped to her mirror. “It will never come down,” says Klingenberg.

In light of these stories, and Christine Carter’s book, it seems decidedly advantageous to allow and even encourage some losses in your children’s lives. Helping your child through a loss at home provides opportunities to teach coping skills and empathy throughout your child’s process of becoming an educated, talented, grown adult. It also teaches your children how to admit mistakes and how to learn from failure. Losses can double determination and long-term commitment to goals. Certainly, success breeds success, but set-backs breed success sometimes, too.