Let me start by saying the following: I am a counselor. I am a coach. I am a competitor. I believe competition teaches many skills that are assets to life.

I like to win.

I believe winning IS what competition is all about. So you can imagine my reaction the other day when my daughter spontaneously announces from the back seat “I like losing.” I about hit the curb, literally. I took a deep breath and in my best counselor voice stated “Tell me more about what you mean, honey.” She replied “Well, it’s not about winning, Mommy. It’s about trying. Besides, winners have to work harder than losers.” Yep, there went another curb.

I agree that trying to the best of one’s capabilities is important but since when is hard work an undesirable trait (and who is teaching my child that?)? Along with that, I believe the desire to win pushes people to reach their greatest potential. Failing to reach that potential, aka losing, can be a great reason to find other ways to improve. However, you still need the main motivation: winning.

As a competitor, I gave my all. Losing was not an option for me. Yes, there were times where it was a reality and I needed to re-evaluate my performance and what I could do better. My best coaches pushed me to do better. They focused on developing my strengths and working to improve my weaknesses. My worst coaches just yelled about everything I did wrong.

As a coach and counselor, I see this younger generation losing their work ethic. I believe part of the reason our younger generation is known as “entitled” is because they don’t have to work for anything. I’m torn on things such as participation ribbons. It’s great to acknowledge their participation in an event. It gives them a memento for their scrapbooks. But what’s their motivation to do better next time? They received an award.

There’s some theories out there that believe giving I-showed-up prizes actually lowers motivation. I believe these hypotheses because handing out prizes simply teaches the kids that they get something, even if they do nothing. They are entitled to something, so why work hard? I asked one teen client what she wanted to do with her life when she graduated. She replied “I want to earn a lot of money doing very little.” And why not? Isn’t that what she was taught by well-meaning, good-intentioned people?

Another problem with entitlement is lack of responsibility for one’s actions. If a person is “entitled” to the win, but doesn’t, that person often blames everything…the weather, the angle of the light, lack of sleep, cheating, and so on. Losing is okay, if you learn from it. But excuses and blame don’t teach anything. Real winners may not get first place but they accept the responsibility and work to change what needs changed.

As a coach, I love working with the kids who have natural talent, but I REALLY like working with kids to make improvements. That could mean I focus a lot on a kid who doesn’t have the natural talent but who is willing to listen, follow directions and work hard. I believe in the athletes and their abilities. For me, winning meant improving, striving to do their best and proving they could do better than before. Yes, I wanted them to get first place, too, but the reality is that not everyone can have first.

For example, I had a young runner who was going to run an 800 meter race. She was in the slower of the two heats. I spoke to her before the race and informed her that she would need to remove 20 seconds from her best time to have a chance at placing. She looked doubtful and I don’t blame her. An 800 meter race is twice around the track. That’s removing 10 seconds per lap. It was a high expectation but I wasn’t going to let her do it alone. I lined up teammates all around the track to cheer her on. She knocked off an incredible 19 seconds. She was disappointed about not placing (she only missed out by a few 100ths of a second) but she could not be disappointed in her performance. From that point on, she worked harder in practice, knowing she was capable of more. For me, that was a win.

On the other hand, I’ve had athletes with immense talent who refused to listen or practice. One kid even told me “I do work hard…at the track meets. Why do I need to practice hard, too?” Helicopter parents swoop in to rescue kids from “mean” coaches when the truth is that the child is probably not practicing to his/her potential. Let me ask…who’s winning in this situation? The coach gets undermined, the parent gets pushy (and sometimes mean) and the kid gets his/her way without earning it.

A former coach of mine recently apologized to his athletes because someone told him that he didn’t make people feel good enough about themselves, held high expectations for his athletes, and scared people because they feared letting him down. He did hold high expectations, but he was willing to help his athletes reach those goals. I didn’t want to let him down, not out of fear, but because of all the hard work I’d put into my events and I knew he had, too. As for someone not feeling good about themselves, it was more about them than him. He worked hard but had fun. He reached out to his athletes and truly cared about them and what was going on in their lives. I know this because if he hadn’t reached out to me, I probably would have ended up a bitter, entitled athlete who got kicked off the team. As it was, he reached out and helped me find peace with a situation, and as a side effect, he improved my focus, practice and attitude.

Life is this way. We need people to push us, and we need to push ourselves to be the best at whatever it is we choose to do. Life doesn’t hand out participation ribbons. Plus, there’s the understanding that sometimes our best isn’t enough. As a counselor, I see it all the time. For example, you can handle depression to the best of your natural ability, but it can still “beat” you. That’s when the I-showed-up-so-I-deserve-a- reward attitude doesn’t work. These types of situations are when a person needs a competitive edge…that will to OVERCOME whatever is holding them back…that desire to seek help and other resources in order to win.

As a counselor, it’s a concern that many kids aren’t getting a realistic expectation of our American culture (because, admittedly, other cultures are different). Their motivation and work ethic are low or non-existent. They lack coping skills (learned from mistakes or “losing”) to deal with negative situations and they turn to “easy outs” such as drugs/alcohol, self-harm or suicide.

We, as parents, have the best of intentions, but the truth is, we need to teach them that winning is important. We need to teach that the definition of winning isn’t “first place.” Rather, it is perseverance, hard work, aiming and achieving realistic goals, and improving ourselves. Sometimes we will get first place…and other times, we win by learning from our loss.

(Author’s note: This article was very difficult to word correctly. I believe winning is important but I also believe it isn’t everything. It’s the definition of winning that needs re-evaluated. Cheating to win is unacceptable; however, giving up because winners have to work harder is also unacceptable. Competition walks a fine line.)

Jessica McCaslin

Jessica is a mom who is working outside the home part-time and who is learning to cope with the ever-changing daily challenges of full-time parenthood. She graduated with her Master's degree in community counseling from the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2005, and works with a diverse mental health population. Jessica resides in Central Nebraska with her husband and four children on the family ranch.