Being a Good Loser

The importance of being a good loser was something that was drilled into me as a child ~ whether it was playing tiddly winks, tennis or … and my parents were undoubtedly prouder of me if they saw me losing with a smile than winning with arrogance.

Early Learning Photo: Frank Tubridy
Early Learning
Photo: Frank Tubridy

It’s something that has stayed with me all the years and I tend to look for it in sportsmen, women and children all the time. This weekend, I saw it in both Serena Williams and Andy Murray at the Australian Open Tennis Championships.

When you think about it, though, being a good loser, is a bit more complicated than might at first appear ~ especially when broadened out from sport.

The term loser is a very derogatory one,  here in Ireland anyway, and tends to be applied to people who have fallen by the wayside. The stereotypical loser is a person who squandered opportunities and is now a homeless, friendless, drunken lout who shouts abuse at passers-by. Little attention is given to the stories behind the losing and generally speaking there are back stories that would break your heart.

Web of Life
Web of Life

At another level, there is the matter of viewing death as losing a battle against some illness or other. I squirm when I think of this because there was a time in the years after the death of my boyfriend from cancer in 1981 that I came to view people who had survived cancer as people I admired most and I remember thinking of the wonderful Bob Champion and Jonjo O’Neill from the world of horse-racing in this context. I can see clearly now that my boyfriend wasn’t a loser (good or bad) because he died.

It seems to me to be time that we moved away from talking about disease in war terms. Interestingly, we don’t hear about people fighting Alzheimer’s Disease or losing the battle with it. I guess that’s because we don’t see this as something that anyone can overcome. That in itself puts such diseases into a category where those who have them can be written off as hopeless cases, when, in fact, they are very much unique human beings who deserve our love and every effort at maintaining connection by whatever means ~ touch, music …..

Layers of Humanity
Layers of Humanity

I’m not sure what being a good loser in the world of work and business means. Imagine going to an interview and stating that being a good loser is among one’s positive attributes? Should we be measuring people by success all the time ~ even if that success comes at the expense of walking over others? I don’t think so.

And, finally, I have to examine my conscience about writing of ‘Losing’ Elderly Parents on this very blog. As I look at that whole issue now after the deaths of my parents in 2009 and 2010 respectively, I’m not sure that losing is the best word. It felt like that from the other side ~ when they were frail and dying ~ but now I realise how much they are still with me in my everyday life through memories and genes.


In grief terms, there are certainly  perceptions of being a good loser and oftentimes, these are about ‘moving on’ and sparing other people from one’s sadness and upset. Such perceptions can put huge pressure on people who are grieving and are most unhelpful.

So, I suppose I would conclude that those urgings to be a good loser are really urgings to be a person who is humane.

What do you reckon about all this? 


Author: socialbridge

I am a sociologist and writer from Ireland. I have worked as a social researcher for 30 years and have had a lifelong passion for writing. My main research interests relate to health care and sense of place.

46 thoughts on “Being a Good Loser”

  1. My brain is stimulated to think about the many labels or concepts in words. This is what I enjoy about wp and reading here. I love rethinking things and being aware of what I am saying. GREAT post!

      1. You are most welcome. With Lyme and the memory issues it creates, keeping my mind active is very important, so it’s very meaningful to me when I have to really consider things. Thanks for kicking my brain into gear. 🙂

  2. A very interesting and thought provoking post. My father suffers from Alzheimer and we can say that everyday is a small victory when his memory is working well. I guess the urging to be a “good loser” is actually an urging to see that nothing is really a loss because it is all something that is meant to be experienced and that has in it great possibilities for growth. Not so much in the sense of acquiring a tough character but more in the sense of understanding that it does not matter whether you have won something or lost it as long as balance is maintained within yourself about that fact, in brief forging a loving attitude towards all matters in life

    1. Hi Geetha, I agree wholeheartedly about those precious moments that are to be treasured in relation to your father and I hope they continue to add light to your lives.
      As for ‘the meaning to be experienced’ bit, I’m not sure about who means it? But I think the ‘forging a loving attitude is’ absolutely key.
      Thanks very much for writing.

      1. Welcome. What I was saying is the moments are “meant to be” in the sense need to be experienced rather than obliterated or hushed/transformed. Even as a child your parents would tell you it’s OK that you lost, you will win tomorrow but that is not what the whole loss is about; it is rather about gaining balance and understanding that winning or losing does not define who you are

          1. Welcome Jean. Hopefully more and more people think like that and we don’t have overwrought kids and young adults killing themselves in senseless competitions

  3. Being a good looser is something I was brought up with, at home and at school. In fact I think I was taught so well that I am an excellent looser!
    I agree the lerm loosing does not seem to aply to dementia, so why do people say they lost their fight with cancer.I don’t have the answer. I have lost many people to death but then again I lost both Mum and Dad before they died.
    I have lost my patience, my money, my respect, hope and yet I am still standing… I have not lost my sense of humour yet but it does wander off like my mind occasionally?! Sorry Jean I am stressed and rambling! ❤

      1. I actually feel cancer IS a battle. Cancer is a scourge upon the humans it inflicts and each day typically becomes a battle to survive. I’m not sure I would say they lost their battle, no, they simply lost their life to cancer. But then, I am a loser of not the good kind having lost a best friend and recently almost losing a nephew, I tend not to want to handle it well because the disease makes me downright angry. Thank you for the thoughtful post.

        1. Caoimhe, first may I offer you my deepest sympathy on your friend’s death. I can certainly understand your anger at the disease.
          I agree that dealing with cancer or any major disease is very rough and tough but I’m still not sure that military metaphors are helpful, especially if they lead to perceptions of winners and losers.
          I’m not sure either that any of us are ‘good’ losers when it comes to the deaths of people we love. How can we be? xx

          1. And agreed, I would never claim a patient to be a winner or loser in any disease either, loss of life is not the same as being a loser. There really is no winner to dreaded diseases because even those who live are often very changed. Thank you Jean, and I am sorry you had a similar outcome in your life as well. Xo

            1. That’s very true about there often being no winners, Caoimhe, though I’ve known people who have felt that they have been given a welcome wake-up call when they’ve come face to face with the threat of dying and have gone on to live life very much more fully. There’s so many angles to all this …..

  4. mmm…you’ve touched a core Jean…success has always been pointed out to me as something to aim for and if I failed then I was a loser = not good enough. I wonder if we can work to change this way of thinking about life and people or is it too ingrained…
    On another note, I had cancer and am a 11 year survivor and I can understand why it is likened to being in battle. I had to gird my loins each time I visited the oncologist, the surgeon and the radiologist. I had to arm myself with bon hommie for family and work colleagues. I had to shield my heart as I sat watching the specialist calculate my chances of survival on his special little calculator…probably the one piece of technology I am happy not to own, and I had to remember to feel very grateful each time I had a chemo treatment that left me wanting to retch my guts out on the floor. But…drum roll…the nurses and doctors were wonderful and were always there for me with a smile on their face and a welcome in their heart…but we were all aware of why we were there…and we treated it like a small war. Life is interesting isn’t it:)

    1. Hi Olga,
      I’m delighted that you’ve come through your ordeal with cancer and can see why you would perceive it as a battle.
      I think that the winning/losing issue is getting more ingrained with each generation ~ well, here in Ireland, anyway.

  5. I think we learn from lifes lessons, and losing gracefully is one of them. Being a good loser and extending your handshake congratulating the winner is one way of exhibiting this. I don’t like labeling others because you don’t know their story and appearances can be deceiving. There are so many meanings to the words lose, loss, lost. So they can’t be heaped all together as each has it multiple meanings and it’s how it’s used that tells it all. I guess our actions really speak louder than words…thought provoking!

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I agree that sometimes a sportsman who didn’t win deserves more praise than the actual winner :). I use the word ‘loser’ sparsely, and rather choose some other words when talk about a person. If I say that ‘he is a loser’ I mean that he has done something wrong, that he lost somebody’s trust and love, opportunities and chances. And still, I will think twice before using the word, because ‘he’ can change his ways and make other, better choices. It is a word that comes with ‘instructions’ – ‘use with care and tact’ 🙂

  7. We have recently borrowed the word “loser”, i do not thing there is only one word in my language to describe “loser”, we use few words to qualify some one who lost a battle in any field…
    Interesting topic, Jean. It’s very important to accept a loss as you have wrote, to know how to lose and don’t get sunk.

  8. Very thought-provoking Jean, I’ve never considered the implications of some of the uses of this word. I was taught not to be a poor loser, but I was also never really taught to be a ‘winner’ – just to ‘do your best’ – though somehow I inherited a perfectionist streak!

  9. Where hope and positivity have made such an impact on my life, I firmly believe they can improve any and every situation. Even if it is just to shift your perception of a situation over which you have no control of the parameters and/or or is inevitable. The only problem for me is not letting external factors have a detrimental affect on my outlook. But if you were happy and content 100% of the time, would positivity and hope become normality?

    1. Hi Nick, I’m not sure than any of us could ever be happy and content 100% of the time. I’ve yet to meet such a person, anyway.
      I agree wholeheartedly about the power of shifts in perception.

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