Lots of kids (and many adults) struggle with this — an intense dislike of losing. So intense, at times, that behaviour becomes erratic and highly unsociable, and blame features as a key player.
Often, people ‘grow out’ of this and learn to accept that life is about losing sometimes. Some people never seem to experience it. And then there are the others — the ones that continue this behaviour well into their supposedly mature years (a couple of young, male Australian tennis players come to mind here).
Up until now, I’ve thought that we would need to come to terms with Geordie being in this latter category. I’m pleased to say I no longer think this way. There is the occasional lapse, but for the most part, he has ‘poor loser’ characteristic under control.
For the longest time, I have considered his reaction to losing to be just that — the actions of a poor loser. But in hindsight, and upon reflection (Aren’t those two things just grand? I wish they’d show themselves to me earlier!) I am not so sure anymore. I think there may be more to it.
I’ve had time to formulate my thoughts on this matter over the last ten days or so while we’ve been away on our annual migration to the South Coast. This time to think happily coincided this year with the realisation that Geordie no longer seriously loses his cool when he’s not winning.
Batemans Bay Mini Golf has been a key feature of our annual coast vacation for as long as I can remember. It’s fun, but many of the holes are rather frustrating. Geordie loves mini golf but has always hated not being able to make par. It took me a while to realise, but this year was the first year I haven’t had to take him aside to ‘give him the talk’. This may be partly due to the increase of his skill level, but there were many holes he (we) didn’t do so well on. He only got frustrated once, and it was almost ‘blink, and you’ll miss it’.
Interestingly, it was a comment from his sister (who, you may remember, is normally very supportive — except when it comes to poor losing) that got me thinking. She got a bit huffy at that ‘blink, and you’ll miss it’ moment, and I pointed out that it had been the only time in the whole course. As the words came out of my mouth, I had a mental ‘wow’ moment and such was the start of my ponderings.
♦ What have we done in the past that has finally sunk in?
♦ Have we been doing anything different lately?
♦ What is the real reason behind this behaviour?
In past years, we have tried many different strategies to get Geordie to ‘be happy even if he lost’. These strategies were not only applied to mini golf but to other competitive games including board games, Wii (or other computer-based) games and tennis. Most commonly used ploys were:
◊ talk at Geordie before playing about how the game was just for fun, it didn’t matter who won and so on. Not particularly effective.
◊ talk at Geordie during the game about the same things. Not particularly effective.
◊ stop playing until he calmed down, then resume. Follow this stop-start pattern for the duration of the game. Not particularly effective and rather frustrating for other players.
◊ stop playing altogether and pack up, whether or not we were finished. Not particularly effective, frustrating for other players and often resulted in meltdown behaviour.
◊ let him win or don’t score. Highly effective regarding maintaining a sense of calm BUT not satisfying for other players AND only made things worse when we actually tried/scored the next time.
◊ refuse to play (a particular game) for x amount of time. Effective from the point of view of eliminating tension BUT still didn’t teach him anything AND things just as bad when we did finally bring the game out again.
I was ready to give up and just accept that this was how things were.
Then, Geordie’s Year 2 teacher introduced him (and us) to the ‘cooperative game’.
Let me just put it out there right now — cooperative games are an absolute godsend! Why? Because everyone plays together, as a team (and there is only one team) and everyone wins OR everyone loses. They also rely heavily on strategy and thinking ahead — something Geordie is brilliant at.
The first games we got onto were the Forbidden games — Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert.
Since then we have also discovered Pandemic, Hanabi and Castle Panic. There are extensions to Castle Panic, two of which Geordie bought today, and a brilliant Harry Potter inspired cooperative game the rest of us are keen to get, but Geordie isn’t. (Don’t ask me why because I have no idea.)
Playing these games has allowed me to work with Geordie on our ‘too bad we lost, but wasn’t it fun’ attitude. The great thing is, a couple of them are really hard to win, so we’ve had lots of opportunity for practising this attitude.
And, while I don’t think cooperative games can lay sole claim on Geordie’s new ability to accept losing, I do think they’ve played a major part.
There are other areas, too, where the need for perfection has dictated Geordie’s behaviour. Drawing, writing, riding a bike — in fact, the initial attempt and eventual uptake of any new skill have often been delayed by the fear of failure — or not being perfect. Any attempt to push him to try before he’s ready has resulted in some sort of meltdown behaviour.
However, there are also areas where this need to ‘win’ hasn’t been apparent. The one that springs to mind is the receipt of awards. I taught a boy years ago, very similar to Geordie in a number of ways, who would get extremely upset to the point of meltdown if he didn’t receive an award in our fortnightly assembly. In hindsight, I can see he didn’t begrudge the other students their awards but felt he’d failed or wasn’t good enough because he didn’t get one. This has never been an issue for Geordie.
Being me, I tend to like to analyse the reasons behind behaviours. As always, this is my personal opinion based on our experiences and may very well be wrong. But for what it’s worth:
I think poor sportsmanship, especially in children on the spectrum, is less about the desire to WIN and more about feeling they have FAILED and are not PERFECT. When this happens, there is a tendency to become overwhelmed by the feeling of failure and not know how to deal with it.
That’s my two cents worth anyway, and I believe it is true for Geordie. Everyone is different. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but sometimes knowing a reason behind a behaviour helps you deal with it more effectively.
PS. The little rotter just beat me at Chess — again! I’ve beaten him once or twice. Absolute pure luck as I have no idea how I did it — but I’m pleased to report he took those defeats really well. (He was probably in as much shock as I was.) Now that we have reached the stage where we can play competitively with a positive outcome if he loses — how do I stop him gloating when he wipes the floor with me in Chess??