Teen Breathe

How to lose graciously

Being on the losing team’s never easy, but there are ways to lose with dignity.
WORDS: Kim Bansi

With competition comes the possibility of losing. And, let’s face it, no one likes to lose, whether it’s at a board game or a sports match. But why does losing sting so much and how can it be handled better?

Why losing is frustrating

Picture this. You’ve just lost the final match of the football season and your team has narrowly missed out on the top spot. Your stomach drops, you feel tears pricking your eyes and anger or disappointment seems to take over. It also feels unbearable to congratulate your opponents.

Balbir Bansi, a school counsellor based in Berkshire in the UK, says these feelings are natural: ‘When it comes to sports or other activities, where a lot of time and effort needs to be put in, it can be painful to lose, because it can feel like your hard work has gone to waste.’

To add to this, other emotions such as embarrassment might arise, especially if friends and family have turned up to support you.

Dealing with the disappointment of losing

These same feelings can surface even when it’s just a casual contest between friends, such as table tennis, cards or a video game. From an outsider’s perspective, losing might seem inconsequential, but Balbir explains that a desire to do your best can lead to disappointment, whatever the circumstances of the defeat.

It may also be the case that you rely on winning – even at an informal game – as a way to boost your self-esteem, or fear that losing means you’re somehow less skilled or less clever than your opponent. This might make you doubt your abilities.

And there are other difficult emotions that can emerge after a loss. If you switch on your games console after a tough schoolday to help you relax, for example, you might be looking for a win to brighten your mood. If this doesn’t happen, it can add to the uncomfortable feelings that may have already been present.

How to learn from losing

As hard as it is in the moment, though, losing does have an upside. Swiss sportsman Roger Federer – often referred to as the greatest male tennis player of all time, with 20 Grand Slam titles under his belt – has had to face defeat plenty of times.

When asked what he felt about the subject, he said: ‘It’s very important to move on, and I think also losses make you stronger. It’s important to learn out of those mistakes and then you become better… you work harder.’

Balbir agrees: ‘As humans, we’re naturally drawn to the highs of winning, but we have just as much to learn from the troughs as we do from the peaks.’

When it comes to games, activities and sports where someone has to lose, the key is to use instances of defeat to identify weaknesses and areas for improvement without becoming unnecessarily self-critical and negative.

For many, losing with good grace and offering sincere congratulations to your opponent is a sign of wisdom and maturity, which are winning traits in all walks of life.

How to be a better loser

  • Accept the feelings. Balbir says that the first step to ease any uncomfortable feelings that come with losing is to accept their existence: ‘When we try to suppress our emotions, they can bubble up over time, but if we accept them when they arise, they can feel more manageable.’ One way to do this is to take a few deep breaths any time the emotions feel too powerful, and then just sit with the feeling.
  • Put it in perspective. If you lose to someone over a friendly game, it can be helpful to remember that the reason you were playing in the first place was for enjoyment. Try reminding yourself that losing doesn’t have to take away from the positive experience of hanging out with friends.
  • Take action. Reactions that convey respect for your opponent can help you to accept the loss. For example, you could shake the hand/s of the winner/winning team or simply congratulate the winner by saying ‘Well done’.
  • Don’t dwell on it. Balbir says that often the worst part of losing is the feelings that follow the event. ‘When we dwell on losing, it can impact our frame of mind in the long term. Instead, we should take the learnings and let go of negative feelings.’
  • Cut the self-criticism. Maybe you feel as though you’ve let people down, such as teammates or family. ‘It’s well known that people are their own worst critics and that all those around you aren’t there to judge – it’s more likely that they just want you to be happy,’ says Balbir. ‘If you’re able to let go of any shame surrounding losing, you can grow from the experience.’ 

You can read more articles in the latest issue of Teen Breathe magazine.