Neil Humphreys – Dealing with Failure

My daughter has discovered failure. She understands the pain of defeat. She no longer falls for that clichéd routine about the participation being all that matters. A loss hurts.

Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have smashed her in straight sets on the tennis court. There’s a real sense of satisfaction when a lob is successfully executed over the head of a five-year-old.

No, I didn’t really. (I relied on my kick serve to pummel her into submission.)

But in all seriousness, there is a perceptible shift of late in the way she views competitive events and sports. She is starting to get a handle on the psychological differences between winning and losing. When she was younger, her ignorance was truly blissful.

She tried to get the bat somewhere near the same postcode as the ball, but couldn’t get close. She didn’t care. She came last in the tricycle races at kindergarten. She didn’t notice. Her adorable, but slightly gangly running style inherited from her beanpole of a father left her trailing on school sports day. She wasn’t fussed.

Whether it was a bat, ball, racquet, shuttlecock, goal or hoop, my little girl mostly missed the target. With no real sense of regret, she gleefully tried again and again, still missing, still failing to make contact. And still she smiled, her tongue flapping around in the breeze like a euphoric dog hanging out of a car window.

Being a first-time father, I had no reason to believe that such innocence, such a belief in sports participation for its own sake wouldn’t endure.

But last week she held my hand and whispered: “Daddy, I don’t want to play badminton anymore. I can’t do it properly like the other girls.”

My heart pounded. My throat suddenly tightened. I was overwhelmed with an unstoppable urge to grab a badminton racquet and smash shuttle cocks at all those other girls.

I realised quickly that such a reaction was not an appropriate parenting method. I only have one tube of shuttle cocks.

But peer pressure has finally taken hold. My girl always wanted to impress her parents. But she now wants to impress her friends more. Like all kids, she covets social acceptance among her chosen tribe. She needs a thumbs-up within the cool clan.

She no longer falls for Daddy’s uplifting cries of “great try” when she fails to catch the tennis ball for the 27th time. She wants to be like the naturally sporty kid in class who could catch a cannonball.

Every parent knows this kid. Whether it’s a boy or girl, this kid wins the races, swims the furthest, makes the dunks, takes the catches, hits the home runs, skips the rope, jumps the rope and cycles home on unicycle – all whilst still wearing diapers.

This is the same kid who sits in the corner of the classroom eating books rather than reading them.

But as my daughter becomes increasingly aware of book-eating boy’s unrivalled ability to win, she acknowledges the likelihood of her losing.

Fortunately, I have just the role model for such a temporary setback.


I was born with the legs of a giraffe, the arms of an orang-utan, the feet of an elephant and the physical co-ordination of R2-D2. My body always looked as if it might end up in a research laboratory being prodded by medical students than on an Olympic medal podium.

So I regale my giggling daughter with countless true tales of my sporting misadventures; tripping over my feet in school races, breaking my shoulder falling off a bike and throwing the discus in the wrong direction and hitting the PE teacher.

My body was not cut out for sporting success. But against my better judgement, I have always loved sports participation. Practice never made perfect, but it certainly made the games more palatable.

I intend to take my daughter on a similarly haphazard journey, filled with falls, flops and failures. She won’t get prizes for not winning, but she will get prizes from me for perseverance.

There might even be unexpected victories along the way.

Last month, I received a breathless call from my little girl.

“Daddy, I just won the class paper aeroplane-throwing contest,” she shouted down the phone.

“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a paper aeroplane contest, but that’s brilliant. Just brilliant.”

The unexpected phone call was almost as surprising as the tears in my eyes. We ordered pizzas and partied like she’d won an Olympic medal.

My little girl is slowly accepting that she may win some, but she’ll probably lose a lot more. Life can’t always be a series of successes and victories.

That said, every time she beats the annoying kid in class who wins everything, Daddy’s ordering her favourite pizza.

About the Author: Neil Humphreys is one of Singapore’s best-selling authors. His works include Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2001), Scribbles from the Same Island (2003), and Final Notes from a Great Island (2006). Be My Baby (2008) chronicled his journey to parenthood and was his first international best-seller. His most recent Singapore book, Return to a Sexy Island (2012), was a No.1 best-seller and turned into a TV series. His illustrated book series – Abbie Rose and the Magic Suitcase – is proving popular with children all over the world and is currently being adapted into an animated TV series. Humphreys has written extensively for The Straits Times, TODAY, The New Paper, Esquire, Men’s Health, FourFourTwo and Young Parents. He currently lives in Bedok with his family and hopes his daughter will learn conversational Mandarin so she can teach her Dad.

Categories: Dad's Journey, Neil Humphreys

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