Written by Lauren Potts
When it comes to losing, writer Lauren Potts is as sore as they come (“no more so than when I’ve lost a game of Monopoly Deal to the in-laws,” she confesses). So why are some adults such sore losers – and how do you become a better one?
“It’s just a game” is not a lesson I learned as a child. In our house, Scrabble was practically a competitive sport and Sunday afternoons were often dedicated to a family tournament. My sister and I were taught there were no prizes for second place and not once did our parents let us win just because we were kids.
Hannah was the youngest and never really expected to come first; I, however, believed I could and found it almost painful to sit through a game I was losing. I’d sulk over my useless rack of Ds and whine that it wasn’t fair while my dad jokingly crowed “loser” and sealed another victory with a Z on a triple-word score.
When I did finally beat my parents – in consecutive games aged 11, no less – I revelled in the praise and proudly tucked the score sheet away for safe-keeping. The fact I still have it some 25 years later is perhaps telling of both the value I ascribed to winning and the dislikeable behaviour it created, something I’m only just now facing up to.
The embarrassing truth is I’m a sore loser. My husband and I only play Yahtzee together because I can (mostly) blame the dice for a poor performance. But when I’m playing Monopoly Deal with the in-laws and someone takes Mayfair from me, I see it as a personal attack. I’m not just furious, I’ll suck the fun out of it for everyone by sighing, slamming the card down and silently seething. I know it’s an illogical response. I know I should behave better. But I can’t seem to help it.
George Dransfield understands. She says she’s “unbearable” when she loses and thinks it stems from her childhood where she was regularly pitted against her sister in spelling and writing competitions.
“I was ‘the difficult child’,” she says, “so when I won that was my main source of praise; I would get to hear ‘You’re so clever,’ when the rest of the time it was ‘Why can’t you be normal?’ It fed me and I’m still terrible for needing praise. Winning and being good at things is so related to how I view myself.”
Clinical psychologist Smriti Joshi says it’s common for adults who grew up experiencing validation around winning to form negative self-beliefs around perfection, performance, achievement and winning, often developing a “harsh inner critic” that makes them feel bad about losing.
One way to avoid this in the first place is to let children play and explore what they’re good at without any success criteria, says Dr Amanda Gummer, a child psychologist and author of The Good Play Guide. Then when it does come to losing, teach them to identify what was within their control and whether it was down to luck, talent or practice.
“Teach kids how to manage losing without it being traumatic and not ridiculing them because if you’ve tried your hardest and you lose, being ridiculed is horrible for self-confidence,” says Dr Gummer.
“But if you throw the dice and get a one every time, it’s not on you, and teaching kids to laugh that off is a good thing. You’ve got to use the [Scrabble] tiles [you’re given]; it’s the perfect analogy for life.”
Those that don’t learn this lesson can, in extreme cases, turn to cheating or develop a victim complex, she adds. In adulthood, this can manifest in using blame as a defence mechanism and an inability to take accountability for failures in exams, interviews and at work, Joshi explains.
Both George and I recognise this behaviour. She says she feels a sense of “injustice” if she encounters bad luck and neither of us will play games we’ve repeatedly lost. But where both of us fail, Lindsay Ephgrave succeeds. A self-confessed sore loser who once flipped the Monopoly board, she realised she needed to change her attitude while playing tennis with her son, 14, and Scrabble with her daughter, 11.
“I could feel myself getting cross when I wasn’t able to return a shot and I had to parent myself and think: ‘You need to encourage it because it’s good that he’s good.’ And when someone gets a good word in Scrabble my daughter will say, ‘Well done!’ and genuinely mean it. So I can learn something from her – when I say ‘Well done!’ it’s through gritted teeth.”
The good news is Joshi believes adults can overcome sore loser behaviour by learning not to associate performance with self-worth. She suggests seeking comfort in other forms of self-validation, like recognising the effort that’s gone into playing, and practising mindfulness.
“Start noticing what happens when you lose – where in your body are you feeling it? Are you clenching your teeth? And if you’re about to [lose it], just excuse yourself and dip your hands in warm water or chew a candy – something very sensory that distracts you.
“That pause is really important because it breaks the vicious cycle of emotions and allows you to calm down and realise it’s not the catastrophe you were thinking.”
Afterwards, she suggests reflecting on what happened and making a list of alternative responses.
“It’s OK to be disappointed, but is being mad an appropriate reaction to losing a board game? Is sulking really helping?”
George says it’s “painful” to think about her behaviour over the years and doesn’t want to pass on her habits to her nieces.
“I’ve genuinely been working on it – telling people well done, saying I did my best. It kills me inside, but I’m trying really hard to be less of a turd to play with. I’m 33, I need to not have a strop when I don’t win. I genuinely don’t want to be that person because it’s so embarrassing.”
Lindsay, 42, feels she’s “definitely got better” at losing for the sake of her kids, adding: “It’s important to teach them they’re not always going to win and if they don’t, you know, it doesn’t matter. You can’t be good at everything.”
For my part, I’ve recently been making an effort to remember Yahtzee is a game of chance and congratulating my husband on his win rather than focusing on my loss. But the real test will be Christmas with the in-laws when I will no doubt find myself running my wrists under the tap, reminding myself that taking Mayfair is not grounds for divorce.
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