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The Poor Sensory Sport

The Poor Sensory Sport

By Amalah

My recently-turned 7 year old was a premature baby, micro-premie in healthcare lingo. He was 1#5oz and so obviously had a tortuous road to good health. We have battled through most of the physical health issues and he’s doing great, however behavior is an issue sometimes. To my point….

He is a horrible sport. He loves the idea of playing games but at the first sign that he might not be winning he usually runs from the situation, most times upsetting a game board or throwing a ball or bat or glove. He runs and hides, sometimes under a bench or table, or in a restroom etc. If you follow him he’s usually crying violently and saying things like he’s horrible and a loser and will never be good at anything. It’s reached a point that it’s affecting his PE grade at school and I’m hesitant about allowing him to do certain extracurricular activities for fear he will lose friends rather than gain them. We live in a rural area so his classmates now will be pretty much his entire class through high school.

What do I do? He needs to understand he won’t win everything he does and that this behavior is inappropriate and that he has amazing value whether he wins or loses.

But…..We’ve tried affirmations to boost his self-esteem, he’s actually usually fairly self-confident and quick and smart, and he’s not the slowest or the weakest so it’s not that he loses everything he does. We’ve tried telling him to knock it off, that you can’t win every game. We’ve tried showing him videos of teams losing and how players act. I’ve taken him to older friends’ games and let him watch how they act when they make a mistake as a good example for him. I’ve tried repeatedly beating him at games to desensitize him. We did let him win as a baby to some degree if that’s a bit of mom guilt I should be harboring, but I think everyone does that? I keep hoping he will outgrow this, but it seems to be getting worse. Take baseball for instance: He will play happily if we don’t keep score or throw people out at first base. But once we start that he does a Jekyll/Hyde transformation. Ideas? Or do I just wait and continue to be mortified.

Complication: my brother lives near us and has a same-age daughter that participates in most activities my son does and my brother is a jackass to him when he acts like this despite the fact that it doesn’t help anything. So I really want my son to quit acting like this or he’s going to hate his uncle forever I’m afraid. I can’t change my brother or his proximity. I figure with 3 boys, with some sensory issues you might have encountered something like this?

Desperate mom of the poor loser.

P.s. More info possibly of interest: He has a wiggle seat and bouncing band on his chair in his classroom to help with his need to always be moving. He is also a bit handsy, to quote my husband. He must always be touching you if you’re talking to him, either by holding your arm or sitting on your lap, etc. When he asks me a question he repetitively taps my arm similar to an autistic stimming movement long after I’ve given him attention and am trying to answer him, at which point he’s driving me insane. I realize all these signs of an overactive sensory system may not be prematurity. He’s the sweetest, funniest, most loving, passionate child. His highs are as high as his lows are low.

So my oldest son was born the day after my due date, weighing in at a whopping 9 pounds, 15 ounces…and your letter describes him perfectly. It’s like: THIS. Just all of THIS. The aversion to anything competitive or rigidly structured (including keeping score vs. “just playing for fun”), the almost violent reaction to the prospect of losing coupled with negative self-talk, and of course, the social consequences that come with being a kid who hates sports and won’t participate or play nicely with others.

Given your son’s prematurity and school accommodations you mentioned, I’m guessing you’re pretty plugged into your area’s early intervention and special education networks. I’m curious if your son has gone through any formal evaluations on his sensory and social problems. I don’t want to speculate on any specific diagnosis, but since he sounds SO SO SIMILAR to my son, I gotta at least toss our diagnoses (first Sensory Processing Disorder and a developmental coordination disorder [dyspraxia], later “upgraded” to Autism Spectrum Disorder coupled with ADHD) out there. If he hasn’t been evaluated for anything neurological recently, I’d say it’s worth a visit or re-visit, especially since a formal diagnosis — while scary — can really open a ton of doors to better treatments and resources. (Not to mention the best path to shutting your jackass brother up. “Can you NOT rag on my kid about shit he can’t control?”)

But since I just said I don’t want to speculate on your son’s specific diagnosis (if any), here’s what helps us with the specific issues you laid out here:

  • Individual sports/athletics as opposed to team sports. Things like martial arts, swimming, horseback riding, archery…SO SO GOOD for kids like this. Anything that’s more about his individual performance vs. a black and white winner/loser dynamic will help him learn good sportsmanship and confidence WITHOUT triggering the Jekyll/Hyde fight/flight reaction you mentioned. An individual sport can be the perfect bridge between the “okay we’ll play but not keep score” and “out of bounds, YOU’RE OUT” options.
  • Social Skills Groups. You mentioned you’re in a small rural area, so this one might be tricky, but kids with sensory issues or Spectrum-like behaviors can really, really benefit from a social skills group led by a child psych or occupational therapist. Plus, it gives them the chance to form friendships with kids who are more like them, with similar struggles and issues. My son’s individual therapists (psych and OT) also focused heavily on social stuff by playing a lot of board games and other winner/loser type things.
  • Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. Yes, this book again. Yes, being a “sore loser” can be a manifestation of an underlying anxiety, especially coming from a kid who doesn’t sound otherwise “bratty” or spoiled. (And omg, we ALL let our little ones beat us at Candyland and score on us in soccer. Don’t feel guilty or like you “caused” this behavior.)

One other thing that really helped us understand our son was this video by Asperger Experts: Don’t Teach Social Skills. (Don’t freak at the title, that’s not actually what they’re saying.) Again, I’m breaking my pledge to not focus on any specific diagnosis but your description of your son’s fight/flight meltdowns are so, so similar to the ones we’ve been through, and the Asperger Experts’ “Sensory Funnel” and “Defense Mode” explanations seriously changed our lives for the better. It really applies to any kid with sensory issues, not just Aspergers/ASD. (Their full video library covers a slew of issues, including stimming, general meltdowns, school organization, you name it.)

My older son is 10 now. He still does not enjoy team athletics or even joining other kids for a casual basketball game at recess because someone might decide to “keep score.” But he enjoys PE and swimming and plays board games without incident. He did karate for awhile and it was great, then he stopped once sparring became a thing and it just wasn’t for him. He chose to join the school band this year as opposed to a sports team and that’s okay. We’re still so proud of him for deciding to try and learn something new, especially since he understood completely that he wouldn’t be immediately “good” at his new instrument and would need to work on it.

Published November 19, 2015. Last updated November 19, 2015.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Dina @ Kids in the Stairwell

    November 19, 2015 at 10:52 am

    I think Amy’s advice is spot on, but I want to just comment on this part of the OP’s letter: “But…..We’ve tried affirmations to boost his self-esteem, he’s actually usually fairly self-confident and quick and smart”. There’s a great book out there called Nurture Shock ( that goes through the data on this. It turns out that telling a kid he’s smart/strong etc. actually reduces their desire to try new things and increases their fear of failure. The best thing you can do to make a kid confident and not afraid to try new things is to emphasize how proud you are of the fact that they tried something (and in no way mention the success or failure of that trying). I really do recommend picking up the book for a more in depth discussion of this. It’s super helpful, science based parenting advice.

  • CourtneyinFL

    November 19, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    Sounds a lot like my 8 yr old son (aspergers, ADHD). Letting go of the pressure/demand of him participating in team sports was a huge turning point for us. We focus on individual sports or clubs (Lego club, minecraft club) and we are all so much happier. He loves track, swimming & golf and has made friends in those sports while still able to dictate his comfort level with participation (he can decide if he wants to play for fun or try and “win”). Plus, I’m grateful I’m not spending my weekends at the baseball field.

  • Erin

    November 19, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    My son is still a baby, but this actually sounds like ME to a t, at least the winning/losing stuff.  I struggled with negative self talk around losing into my 20s, although I learned to hide it as I grew so as not to be rude to others.  Only my husband knew about it in adulthood.  The advice to try more individual activities/sports was right on in my case; I was involved in competitive gymnastics, swimming, and martial arts in that order growing up, and loved all of them.  My parents did make me play one season of a team sport before graduating high school.  On my case, at least, this attitude is just a particular personality trait of mine, and not related to any larger issues.  So it may just be a normal thing your son needs to work on and mature in.

  • Kay

    November 19, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    You got great advice from Amy, but on the piece about the family dynamics: you say you can’t change your brother, but I think you need to try to change your brother. I’m not sure what “acting like a jackass” toward a 7-year-old looks like – whether he just has no patience for your son’s outbursts or he’s actively antagonizing him – but it really can’t be good. Maybe part of coping with this is going to involve sitting down with local family, saying that you realize this is an issue, you’re not ignoring it and you and your son are working on it, but in the meantime everyone has to be on the same page about how to handle outbursts so as to not make it worse and damage relationships. 

  • Jenelle

    November 19, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    Agree with everything Amy said, but as for specific suggestions that may help in the meantime: there are “cooperative” board games where everyone works together, rather than each player trying to win individually. One of those might be a good way to introduce board games and playing together and fun family time without the pressure of winning/losing and whether he’s going to throw a tantrum. It won’t solve all of the issues, obviously, but at least may be something to pull out on a playdate with friends or with his cousin that won’t cause all the drama.

  • Autumn

    November 19, 2015 at 11:44 pm

    My younger brother was a quirky kid who probably would have qualified for the ASD diagnosis in hindsight.  Team sports were not good, but group activities like Cub scouts, band, even swimming were a better fit for him.  

    And on the need to win, we’ve watched our 4 year old neurotypical daughter stack the deck for Candyland.  It was pretty funny, and she was Mad when Mommy shuffled the deck before we started the game.  She’s doing ice skating lessons (cause of Frozen) which is about learning a skill vs winning 

  • Amy

    November 20, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Mom of Poor Loser here. Thanks everyone for the feedback. Ben has never been evaluated for anything. We honestly live outside a town of maybe 100, where I grew up. The accommodations we have in the classroom as just things the Kindergarten teacher came up last year (bouncy cord) and 1st grade teacher this year added the wobble seat. So…wow. Looks like I need to ask some questions about who I would even talk to. We don’t have school therapists, but we do have a special Ed teacher, so I’ll start with her unless you suggest otherwise.
    Individual sports is tough too due to the rural area. As a 7 year old boy our options within 45 miles are: Baseball in the summer and soccer in the spring and basketball for 4 weeks in the winter; there is a place 30 miles away that offers karate but he has no interest. So….hmmm….

    As far as my brother, I should talk to him again Jenelle. Thank for the encouragement. I just worry about family tension because they literally are our second closest neighbor and then my parents. We are small town America, even more simple than a sitcom could write it. He needs dealt with, and I need to be brave enough to do it.

  • Lisa Y

    November 21, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    I’m a speech therapist and I work in a very small district where I serve pre-k through 12th grade. But even though we are small, there are enough students with social quirks that either the sped teacher or I run social skills groups for every grade up through 8th. And the students do not have to qualify for special ed to participate. Something to ask about!