When Competition Goes Too Far and Your Daughter Calls Herself a Loser

“Get ready, set, GO!” My daughter’s gymnastics instructor cued the girls and they all pushed up into backbends. I watched from the hallway as my 4 (almost 5)-year-old challenged the 5, 6 and 7 year-olds to a new competition.

“Let’s see who can hold it the longest,” the teacher reminded the girls of the rules. “When you come down go sit against the green wall.”

It was my daughter’s first gymnastics class of the summer. So a new group, new teacher, new traditions. To my knowledge she had never done something like this before.

From the hallway I watched for what felt like forever. A couple girls started dropping and I could tell my daughter was shaking. I saw her stomach quivering, moving as if she was laughing. But I couldn’t see her face from where I was.

The girls were dropping like flies.

She’s either laughing or crying. I thought to myself.

Her coach right next to her noticed too.

“[Lil’ J] what’s wrong?” Her coach asked.

I couldn’t hear her reply from where I sat.

“Well you can come down,” her instructor encouraged her.

I kept thinking she’d come down to at least talk about the issue–Which if it were me would be pain–But she stayed for another moment.


“Why are you crying?”

Oh dear. Crying in a backbend, that’s gotta make things more challenging. I watched with excitement, and surprisingly, without an ounce of competitiveness. I’d never seen her do anything like this before. We practiced backbends at home, but not holding them for periods this long. I was amazed she was doing so well, but sad and confused about her crying.

There were only three girls still in backbends at this point, and Lil’ J came down.

“You did good [Lil’ J],” her coach said. “You got third place!”

When she turned her face I could tell she was sobbing. She went and sat against the wall, which was close to where I was sitting. The door was open and she peeked her head out to look at me.

I gave her a thumbs up and smiled while mouthing “good job!”

She shook her head at me in disagreement.

It’s not uncommon for her to get a little emotional during her dance or gymnastics classes. Especially when I’m watching.

It’s a battle. The whole time she keeps looking at me and waving and I keep telling her to pay attention.

Once the next exercise began she was back into her high spirits. It wasn’t until class was over and we got in the car that I was able to ask her what had happened at the beginning of class that had her in tears.

“I lost,” she said.

“No you didn’t,” I told her. “You did really well. But why were you crying when you were in a backbend?”

“Oh, because I didn’t want to lose,” she said. As if it were no big deal.

“I thought you were laughing at first.”

“No, I was crying.”

“I thought maybe you were crying because it hurt.”

“My arms were shaking,” she admitted.

“Why didn’t you come down?”

“Because I didn’t want to lose.”

It became evident I had a sore loser one my hands. Not the kind that kicks and screams when they can’t win… But the kind that pushes themselves too far for the sheer sake of winning.

I probably should have had some wise motherly advice at this point. I told her that she didn’t lose. That it was just for fun, and that she did really well lasting really long and that she was one of only three people left. She tried her best and that’s what mattered.

At home third place usually means last place. Maybe that’s where the confusion came from?

I tried to explain she was one of the winners without making winning sound important.

I’m not so sure I succeeded.

Should I even be surprised given the way our family is?

Our 2-year-old son even shouts an ‘in YO FACE!’ “Ooooooooohhhhhhhh!” when someone yells the name of a song during our family name-that-tune game. (Obviously learning it from my husband.)

And that very same day I had my daughter help me exercise in the playroom so I could get more steps and “beat daddy” in our fit Fitbit challenge.

She kept telling me to check my progress and see if we were getting closer. When I’d sit down to rest she’d ask me: “Don’t you want to win?”

Was I training a monster?

I’ve said before that I don’t want to raise my children to be competitive. I want them to be their best, and help others be their best. But maybe I’m not living as a great example. Maybe they pick up on these little things and it makes a bigger impact than I thought.

My daily step average for the week (before today) was 2k. I lost 40 pounds then fell off the workout wagon. I thought a step challenge with my husband would get me back on the ball. Maybe I’d do a quick jog or some zumba with the kids and get around 8k steps.


My husband taunted me. Asked me why we were even calling this a challenge.

He already had around five-thousand steps and I had about a hundred.

Ok show off… It’s on.

My goal was a moving target all day. It wasn’t to get to 10k steps, it was to get to where he was.

By the evening I was still a few thousand steps behind.

Our daughter taunted her dad “I’m on mommy’s team, and we’re winning!” she told him.

“Uh, actually not yet,” I corrected.

At fistt he wasn’t sure what we were talking about.

“You know, the exercise game!” She reminded him.

It must have given him extra motivation because he went and did another workout in the garage. Putting him just over a reachable goal in my eyes. Then he got ready to wind down for bed.

He turned in early because he had work at 6am. I went to a friend’s house to watch The Bachlorette.

When I came home I weighed my options. I could go to sleep, admit defeat. I am just too lazy to try to beat his nearly 14k steps.

I could get some work done and try to make it a close competition. Or I could put on some headphones and dance for an hour to beat him.

Where were those headphones…?

It was on. I turned on Pandora and tried to get about 500 steps a song. Eventually I was 300 steps from where he went to bed. So I slowed my pace. Taking time to taunt him in his sleep.

How (not) to handle competitiveness  in kids.

Finally, when I was just a few steps away from taking the lead, I planned it perfectly, taking just one more step than his record.

I took my Fitbit off and laughed at my success and silly persistence and effort to beat him by one step.

I sat down to rest then realized if he got up to go to the bathroom then he would come back and beat me without knowing it. So I took one more lap around the living room to ensure my victory, then sat down to finally start on some work… If I could even stay awake at this point.

Here I was exhausted with 13,800 steps…Best I’ve done in months mind you, because I didn’t want to lose.

And I wondered where my daughter got it from.

Maybe it’s in her blood. Or maybe she’s doomed with us as parents. Either way I’d say we have some serious work to do in the sportsmanship department.

Are you a competitive person? What about your kids?


~Lil’ J is currently 4 years 12 months and 3 weeks old. ~

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  1. We’ve thought a lot about this recently. We’ve finally decided losing isn’t a bad thing. It happens. Sadly, our kids need to lose when they’re with us.. Because they’re going to lose in life.

    There’s way more opportunities to lose than to win.

    When I race my J to his room… Sometimes I beat him. He throws a temper tantrum and I remind him he won yesterday and to try harder next time.

    Competition is okay! I think the only type of competition that’s not okay is when you get to a point where you’re hurting your competitor to win. If you were tying B’s hands to the bed so he couldn’t get up in the middle of the night and beat you… Well that would be bad. But if you said “dad won tonight – I respect his hardwork and determination and I’m going to try harder to win next time” that’s okay!!

    There might be an element of putting self worth on whether we win to explore here… That is something I wouldn’t want to teach my kids… Which is why I make J lose sometimes…

    Keep up the competition my friend!!

    1. I think my battle is with the fine line between handling competition and thriving off competition and wanting to beat people. Haha, like am I insane for my attitude last night? I’m not as bad as I once was but man, I still have that spark in me.

      It’s totally ok to lose, especially when we tried our best… J totally can hold her own in Disney name-that-tune and I don’t hold back anymore. I didn’t add this in my already too-long post but yesterday I was starting to beat her at that game and I said “do you want me to help you win, or keep doing my best and see who wins?” She went back and forth for a moment then decided she wanted it to be fun, and wanted me to try my best too.

      Maybe in the backbend challenge she didn’t push herself “too far” but just far enough. And maybe if she wasn’t crying she woulda won. haha. Either way, you’re right… I need to teach her that it’s ok to lose.

  2. We have been discussing this because the hubby is a gamer, all games, any games, and he has been teaching the kids video, card and board games. Suddenly, all of his petulance (poor sportsmanship) at losing a game is showing in them. I am competitive as they come. I come from a family where my grandmother turned her den into a trophy room, bought glass cases, and proudly displayed all of my aunts and uncles trophies and awards. My dad and uncle are world class baseball players who played for the Dodgers minor team out of high school. I was raised to be competitive, but we always saw losses as chances to improve. You can’t get better if you are always the best. A runner runs faster against a better, faster runner. That is just how it works.

    So when the kids started getting upset about losing, the hubby and I had to have a talk. Each person in each scenario must decide if the goal is worth it. It does no good to fight to win something that you are just not plain going to be good at. I don’t play video games. I am too ADHD for them and I hate keeping track of all of the button combinations to get X character to do Y. I am happy to play that game and come in last. It makes me no nevermind. If we were talking about tennis, or cycling or skiing…it’s on. I have goals in those areas. I am reasonably good at them and I want to improve so I can focus on my performance. I am teaching our kids to do that. How to assess what goals are worth it and how to attain the best performance you can.

    Beyond that, we just want to teach them to be happy with their best effort. You can’t be the best all day every day, but you can always put your best foot forward. Doing your best is all that can ever be asked of you. If you give it your best, be happy with wherever you finished. If there is a lesson to learn to improve, learn it, but otherwise, you did your best. There is success in that achievement.

    Our daughter is doing better. Our oldest son is own his worst critic. We’ll have to help him with his internal narrative and teach him to fair to himself. I try to talk to him about how he feels after each game. Failure is a chance to learn and if you spend too much time beating yourself up, the lesson will pass you by. Life’s goal is to not miss those lessons.

  3. I have to say I’m competitive. But when it comes to my kids I tell them that as long as they did their very best, that’s totally winning!

  4. I’m not competitive at all. I remember when I was little and tried out for the tap dance team and didn’t make it. I cried. Tap was my favorite. The teacher put me in pointe class though, I was better in ballet. Sometimes when you are so young its hard to understand.
    This story made me sad for your little one. So young to put that much pressure on herself. My son who is 6 gets upset if he writes something wrong, and he doesn’t like losing at games. I don’t think anyone really enjoys losing.

  5. My youngest is like that as well, but she’s more competitive with herself than others. I’m amazed she held a backbend while crying! Talk about muscle control!

  6. I am not competitive but my daughter is. It’s hard for me to help her because I don’t have that instinct. She would have been hard on herself for 3rd place, too.She yells at herself when she feels like she’s not winning a video game!
    That said — way to go with those steps!

  7. First I want to say congrats to your daughter for holding on to that position for so long. Number two, sometimes is ok not to win, when we become competitive, we are constantly comparing ourselves with others, and there will always be someone who runs faster and so forth…but keep doing what your doing, because your doing a great job.

  8. Oh, Jennifer… I love that you’re sharing this. And I don’t think sweet Jayda is a “sore loser” at all. It’s okay to be competitive. It’s okay to want to win, to be the best. It pushes us. It makes us stretch ourselves.

    And in a society and time where every kid gets a freaking trophy for participating in little league, a medal for doing a “jump rope for heart” fundraiser regardless of their performance, and a ribbon for every piece of classroom-created “art” their teacher submits into a show, it’s honestly a refreshing attitude.

    Your competition with Brian made me laugh too (and also made me scared to ever do another fitbit challenge with you, once I charge mine up when I’m back at home).

    But I think your reaction when YOU lose (anything not winning is losing, even if you had fun, even if you feel happy about completing, Jayda is right. haha) could help shape how Jayda responds too.

    Maybe setting up a “Personal Best” whiteboard in your garage would be cool, so she could compete against herself and feel proud when she does better than last time would fulfill her competitive needs without the anxiety of competing against OTHERS… or if you have another fitbit battle with Brian, and you lose, you could show Jayda how your steps that day compare with your recent days, and how even though you didn’t win, you still pushed yourself due to the competition, and did way better than without the little challenge.

    You’re a great mama. Don’t worry about a few tears in a backbend. You’ve got this.

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