My biggest hobbies as a teenager were, in order: football, basketball, baseball, hockey … and any other sport that was stuffed in the local sports page. I was a sports nut, and my family didn’t even have ESPN.
On Wednesday nights at church, my friends and I would gather on the parking lot for the fiercest pickup basketball game you’ve ever seen from uncoordinated skinny kids. On Sunday afternoons, you could find us playing touch football in the church yard, with me often being selected as what we’d call the “all-time quarterback.” During the rest of my free time, I was playing my mom and dad in one sport or another, determined to beat them, too.
Fast forward to today.
My oldest son, who is 6, is at the age where he wants to beat dad each time we play anything: board games and sports … even tag. That, of course, raises the question every parent confronts: Should I intentionally let my child win—or should I just mercilessly beat him at each contest?
It seems at first a trivial and pointless question, but it’s not. Remember that old coach who always told you that “sports teaches valuable lessons about life”? He may not have known it, but he was borrowing a scriptural theme.
The Apostle Paul—who no doubt would have watched a little bit of ESPN—compares the spiritual walk to a runner in a race eyeing the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). He further notes that “every athlete exercises self-control in all things”—implying that the Christian, too, should practice self-control in day-to-day living. It’s not the only reference to sports in Scripture (see, for example, 2 Timothy 2:5 and Hebrews 12:1).
God, it seems, does see value in sports. After all, it can be a microcosm of life, and children can begin learning valuable “adult lessons” long before they’re able to apply them in the adult world. We win and lose in sports, just like in life. We learn to be disciplined and patient, to practice self-control, to be a leader, to listen to those in authority, to be responsible, to bounce back, to get up when we don’t want to, to get along with those we normally wouldn’t like, to encourage, and to share. Everything translates to life.
“In athletic events, you go through good times and bad, often in the span of two hours,” NBA coach Flip Saunders once said. “Do you have the composure to settle yourself down, or do you totally lose it and get thrown out of the game, which hurts both you and your team? All of that on-court experience has a real effect on how you deal with real-life situations.”
So, should you “throw the game” and intentionally let your child win in a 1-on-1 matchup? In my opinion, yes, sometimes. And should you beat them mercilessly in a few games, too? Yes, sometimes. Here’s why: If winning and losing is necessary to learn those life lessons, then it’s beneficial if we win some and lose some. The younger my children are, the more I let them win. As they grow older, I put up more of a battle.
I want my 6-year-old son to enjoy sports while learning the lessons it provides. This means I want him to learn how to win gracefully and lose gracefully. If he is cocky and arrogant in a given game, he gets everything I have. But if he is struggling with his confidence, I might intentionally miss a few shots—encouraging him all the way. If I beat my son every time, when would he learn how to win with class?
On a recent night, we were playing a game of indoor “mini-hoops,” and I felt he was overconfident and needed humbling, so I beat him … bad. He was a gracious loser. During the next game I took another quick lead but sensed I was breaking his will, so I let him rally and win. While he was preparing to sleep that night, we had a good conversation about confidence and never giving up—lessons that have far greater application than sports.
Someday, he’ll likely catch on and want me to stop “letting him win.” And further down the road, he’ll probably become so good that I’ll long for the days I had to “throw games.” Until then, though, I’ll let him win some. And beat him in a few, too.
Michael Foust is an editor and writer who blogs about parenting and fatherhood. He loves his family and also really likes stove top popcorn. Interested in re-posting this in your publication or on your blog? Send me a message in the comments section below (the message won’t go public). Also, check out my video section.