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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Big-time Losing

 Winning and Losing

Every athlete wants his team to be "number one." Excelling with victory after victory involves the competitive nature of sports as the best teams rise to their undisputed positions. These days the drive to win at all costs consumes athletes and fans alike. Athletes go to ugly measures to win --  be it winning games, contracts, or praise.

UNC Professor of Sport Psychology John Silva pointed out in an interview that Americans will create a structured competition of most anything. "The more industrialized the culture is, the more scoring and achievement-oriented the (play) is," Silva said. "With industrialized society, we have to measure everything, and we need objective consensus at the end as to who won. We've got to count our beans." (Randy Young, Chapel Hill News, January 23 2008)

A team loss demands that critical errors be examined and evaluated in order that a winning edge be restored. In sports, losing equates to failure, and failure, over any extended period of time, is unacceptable to everyone. Pride is a winning matter, reserved for the best. As they say, "The winners write the history."

The adoration, rewards, and other benefits to the winners are, indeed, great. Morale, cooperation, and even self-confidence improve with winning records. Bandwagons form and everyone seems to jump aboard as loyal fans of a winner.No longer does a youngster, or most adults for that matter, want to sport the cap, wave the banner, or follow the exploits of local teams with losing records.

To lose or to associate with losers creates incidents of mockery and contempt. Some losers find themselves mired in mediocrity and respond to the competition with deflated self-concepts that actually breed loss after loss.

Yet, what about losing? Yes, losing hurts, embarrasses, and demotes. Losing becomes a fall that places an athlete under the feet of the winners, many victors who have no concern for their conquests. If losing becomes habitual, the loser becomes addicted to "going through the movements" of participation, not enjoying the fruits of victory and the joy of the following celebration.

I have played on winning teams and losing teams. Little need exists to describe the benefits of winning, but I also found many benefits in losing. Admittedly, accepting those losing lessons proved much harder than exalting in win after win. Still, experiencing loss after loss demanded that I suffer with problems and situations that I never had to deal with when winning.

What Losing Taught Me

1. Losing taught me that someone bigger, stronger, and better can dominate me at will. Rocky is fiction and taking a physical beating by an opponent has no happy ending. Humbleness and grace result at the end of a game played against someone who "ate you for lunch."

2. Of course, losing taught me that a rare win is the sweetest occasion. Since such a victory seldom occurred, I had no bragging rights or pompous feelings about the miracle. I experienced a pure joy of rare attainment with teammates I considered brothers.

3. Losing, taught me how to deal with continual disappointment. Learning to cope with the losses improved as I experienced more and more lopsided defeats. I found some satisfaction in just participating and being somewhere in the pecking order. A loser learns to be resilient.

4. Losing taught me not to be arrogant. Any victory to a losing team is an earned victory. I learned to hate situations where teams "ran up" the score in such conceit. A gracious loser is more respected than a winning braggart.

5. Losing taught me that all contests do not have to be won or lost. On a personal level, I thrived on little victories within a loss: several good plays, just hanging in there, or managing my reactions to a bad situation.

6. Losing taught me that being defeated in many games or having a bad season isn't the long run in life. Losing can prepare competitors for winning as they long for brighter days and strive harder to attain them. It teaches patience.

7. Losing taught me to seek new directions. A loser has to become resourceful and adaptable to find a means of advantage within the framework of the rules of the game. Without a few edges, I felt unprepared, even in facing failure.

8. Losing taught me that winning can be less important than continuously making the most of every opportunity. It's wonderful to win honors, but the true experience of sports lies in the desire to compete.

9. Losing taught me that sometimes so many variables come to play that I could not control them all to win. Consider the playing conditions, the experience and skill of the competitors, the off day, the slump, the luck.

What Research Tells About Losing

Child psychologist and Tufts University professor David Elkind told Psychology Today that the levels of emotional distress in high schools and colleges reflects the shock that real world challenges impose upon those who have been insulated from loss from an early age. (Randy Young, Chapel Hill News, January 23 2008)

By sheltering our youths from losing, we're not fashioning winners. We're merely creating poor losers.
"Behold the wholly sanitized childhood, without (scrapes or bruises) or the occasional 'C' in history," Elkind said. "Kids need to feel badly sometimes. We learn through experience, and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope." Without failure, then, the society we create is brittle and depressed.

"Parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the bumps out of life for their children," wrote Hara Estroff Marano ( "Parental hyper-concern has the net effect of making kids more fragile, however. That may be why they're breaking down in record numbers." Marano noted that mommies and daddies coach their kids, play by play. Few will let kids figure out things themselves.

So, the next time a loss seems like the end of civilization, athletes and fans should consider that these humbling losing experiences are necessary and possibly beneficial. Being a good loser is a fine quality to attain. As much as we love competition and winners, not all teams and athletes become number one. Most of us, likewise, go through life as numbers 2-? Sports should be vital life preparation.

I wonder how many parents would rather have their children play on a team with an 0-10 record that concentrates on making each player a well-rounded, respectable, sportsmanlike athlete than have their children play on a team with a 10-0 record under a coach who will do anything with and to their children to win?

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