Sports Parenting: Winning and Losing with Grace

By Jessica Wolstenholm

Now that the school year has gotten into the swing of things, the season has come for little league soccer games, football under the Friday night lights, and every other sport you can imagine. While these days spent on the court or in the field bring joy, tough moments and conversations arise too. To shed some light on parenting athletes, we asked blogger and dad Aaron Conrad to share his approach in a four-part series over the next month.

We live in an interesting age. Big shoe contracts and endorsement deals have made it necessary for athletes to be more than just good at their sport. The more they can bring the spotlight to themselves, the better. The ESPN moment that follows the touchdown, dunk, or home-run is what gets the real attention. On top of this, social media has given individuals another outlet to bring attention to their own achievements.

So how do we find balance and guide our little ones to win and lose with grace?

As with most of the things that we teach our kids, I believe that this behavior and response is one that starts at a very early age. It’s okay to be excited about a moment in sports. It’s not okay to show up another player or opponent. One example I have used with our kids is former Detroit Lions running back, Barry Sanders.

Arguably one of the greatest running backs of all time, Barry Sanders found the end zone many, many times (99 touchdowns to be exact). After every touchdown Barry would walk over to the referee, hand him the ball and jog back to the sidelines. No spike. No dance. No throat slash. No taking off the helmet or pounding his chest. Just a quiet, humble hand-off of the football to the referee. It’s been said that Barry had been there before and he knew he would be there again.

It’s such a delicate balance between enjoying the moment and letting your emotions show and showing up an opponent or making them feel bad. My advice to my children is as follows:

  • Give God the glory – It is through Him and by Him that they are even able to play in the sports that they do. Be thankful for the opportunity to play as there are many that don’t or can’t have that opportunity. Let your reactions and your play reflect that of your maker. Ephesians 2:10 says: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
  • Be like Barry Sanders – When you win or lose, simply “hand the ball to the referee.” Your humility in your moment of glory will be far more impressive than any dance or attention you could draw to yourself. Humility in a moment of glory will be far more memorable. Galatians 6:14 says: But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…
  • Respect your opponent in victory and in loss – Treat your opponent, as you would want to be treated in victory or defeat. Encourage teammates that are down and celebrate the achievements of others. Lose well and win with humility.

We are big fans of the Little League World Series at our house, and this past summer I noticed a very interesting trend watching it. In one particular game, the pitcher gave up a huge homerun to the other team. As the player was rounding third base towards home, the pitcher that surrendered the homerun met him there. He shook his hand and walked back to the mound. I was so impressed by that. Whoever they are, the coach and parents of that child are doing it right. Let’s encourage our children to always be gracious in victory and even more so in defeat.


Aaron Conrad is a husband, father, follower of Christ, Tar Heel fan, random tweeter and believer that Love Does!