Playing Monopoly with my son when he was in elementary school was a nightmare. In fact, the same could be said for just about any board game. As soon as it looked like he was going to lose, he would abruptly leave. He was a sore loser. There were tears. Sometimes game pieces would go flying. His door would slam shut.
My husband and I would look at each other. It was the look that said, he must have gotten this from you. But we both knew that this was not the case. I am not a sore loser. I am competitive, and I love to win, but I know how to accept defeat. The same can be said for my husband. So, where in the world was Josh getting this from?
We figured that we just needed to expose him more to lose to get him out of his funk. So, we enrolled him in soccer.
It turns out this was a big mistake. Not only did he hate soccer, but his lack of soccer skills and subsequent losses only took his bad attitude to new levels.
As a parent, this was tough to watch. It made me wonder where we had gone wrong.
But it turns out; sore losers can be found everywhere, even amongst animals. So, if you have one in your house, know that this is more common than you might think. What’s more, certain triggers seem to set sore losers off more than others.
When we win, our brain is hardwired to release dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin — effectively all our feel-good chemicals. This is why we are on top of the world when things go our way. Conversely, when we lose, we release cortisol which triggers a stress response in our bodies. And it turns out that this stress response in the brain is not unlike the response people get when they are in physical pain.
Losing, literally and physically, knocks us down.
Sensitivity to Loss
Interestingly, researchers have also found that some people are just more sensitive to lose, and more specifically a loss of status, than others. And typically, these people feel like they are lower in the overall pecking order. In my son’s case, he is the youngest.
These individuals tend to release more cortisol than their peers when they lose. Hence they are in a lot more pain. Not unexpectedly, the more self-assured one is in the pecking order, the less cortisol that is released when a loss is experienced.
This reaction to loss doesn’t only hold for humans. Animals feel it too. Research on bonobos and chimpanzees shows that these animals also exhibit sore loser traits, particularly those lower down in the pecking order.
Chimpanzees and bonobos display emotional responses and even throw tantrums when they do not get their intended outcome in a risk-reward challenge.
-A new study in PLOS ONE
A Lack of Emotional Maturity
Being a sore loser goes beyond just a perceived loss of status. It also has to do with a lack of emotional maturity.
This is why it is not uncommon to see tears, sudden exits, and foot-stomping when things don’t go well with sore losers.
Ultimately controlling emotions is a learned behavior, and we get better at it as we get older. Teenagers and adults know that flying off the handle is not a good thing to do. And this awareness often serves to curb bad behavior.
But for children and some adults that can’t express themselves well, this is often difficult to do.
These sore losers often throw temper tantrums or have meltdowns. And their tantrums often get worse when things are perceived to be unfair, have been left up to chance, or where the sore loser has completely misjudged their odds of success.
A Lack of Perceived Fairness
It turns out that everyone hates it when things don’t seem fair. Even dogs and monkeys have been found to react adversely when they perceive things to be unfair.
Dogs who see other dogs getting treats for the same behavior when they don’t receive a treat start to ignore commands.
Similarly, a study from 2003 found that monkeys who received cucumbers for handing a rock to researchers were happy until they saw another monkey get a grape instead. When this happened, all mayhem broke loose, and the monkeys started throwing their rocks instead of passing them to the researchers.
Like monkeys, sore losers tend to kick up a stink when outcomes seem unfair. This is particularly true with games of chance.
Take a sore loser to a theme park and have them try the bottle toss. Guaranteed, they will not be happy with the results. This is amplified because the game is inherently perceived to be unfair. And it is.
Sore losers also often react more strongly when they overestimate their abilities and underestimate the abilities of their opponents. Oftentimes in these situations, they expect to win. And when this doesn’t happen, their confidence is shattered.
This is why sore losers can sometimes be happy to engage in games when they think they have things in the bag. Sadly, when they lose and don’t expect it, their egos take a beating. This is the worst kind of loss because they should have won in their mind’s eye.
A Loser’s Mindset
All too often, sore losers also start to shy away from any activities that don’t look winnable. This is in everyone’s nature. It is also common in most animals as well.
Take the example of copperhead snakes. Researchers found that invariably once a snake lost a fight against another snake, that they were more likely to go on losing all their consecutive fights, too, even if the losing snake was 10% larger than his opponent.
As a parent, it’s easy to believe that avoidance is a good strategy with sore losers. But here, you would be mistaken. Avoidance doesn’t help kids or adults get better at losing. Nor does reprimanding them or telling them to “get over themselves.”
Ultimately losing hurts and the emotions your child or an adult may be feeling are normal. Telling them to “suck it up” will only reinforce their feelings that they are weak, inadequate, and have somehow disappointed those around them.
What helps them get over losing is actually winning.
Winning and What Works
“You think you are a loser just because you haven’t yet won. When you start winning, you will realize that your insinuations were just a figment of your imagination.”
― Michael Bassey Johnson, Before You Doubt Yourself: Pep Talks and other Crucial Discussions
Kids and adults first need to learn what it feels like to win to become more comfortable losing.
According to Sandy Blackard, author and coach of the Language of Listening team, kids need to feel like winners to become gracious losers.
Ultimately, we need to let sore losers win. But we shouldn’t sandbag and let them win willy-nilly. Rather — we should ask them if they want us to let them win. If they say yes, we should acquiesce. We need to give them control.
By doing this, they will learn what it’s like to win. They will start to believe in themselves more, and perhaps most importantly, they will learn how to lose.
I used this on my son when he was younger (after the soccer fiasco). He improved leaps and bounds. And as a result of doing this, he developed new-found confidence and a better attitude when things didn’t go his way. He is still a bit of a sore loser at times, but that nasty habit is gone for the most part.
Another tip is to work with the adult or child in question to help them get a better sense of their odds of success. Having a realistic view of what may or may not happen often helps lessen the blow. This allows them to go into things with their eyes wide open.
Finally, as an adult, it’s important to model good behavior. Teach, don’t preach. Kids will follow your lead, so it’s important to reinforce what losing grace looks like continuously.
In the End
I never expected my son to be a sore loser. I don’t think any of us expect this of our kids. So, it is often a bit of a shock when we see it in action.
But you should know that this behavior is widespread — especially amongst younger children.
Thankfully there are things we can do to help nip this in the bud. And without a doubt, allowing your child to experience what it’s like to win is probably one of the most helpful things you can do.
So, take the time to focus on this. Turn your sore loser around. It will lead to a win-win scenario for the whole family. And it doesn’t get any better than that.