Life lessons: Becoming a Graceful Loser

America is built on a culture of winning as exhibited by the current Presidential race. The over-the -top rhetoric and bullying, we see in the debates and tweets are a direct outgrowth of Americans’ proclivity and appetite for winning at all costs. As Vince Lombardi famously said, Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

I have to admit I like to win.  In my teens, I successfully ran track. I have a wooden box filled with my track medals (now almost 50 years old). In college, I played on the women’s volleyball and golf teams, always second string but at least making the team. My son, Scott at 22 is a senior playing lacrosse for his university team. My daughter, Kayla at 16 played high school volleyball and club soccer until her ACL was torn a couple of weeks ago. I want to emphasize that as parents, my husband, Pete and I  never pushed our children into a sports.  But if a they chose to go out for a team and were selected to play, we expected them to fully engage. During my sports career and  watching my kids’ teams for the past sixteen years, I have experienced and witnessed a lot of wins and losses.

Obviously, one prefers the elation of  winning. Especially sweet is a David versus Goliath triumphant where you unexpectedly beat an opponent who is on par or maybe better than you on any other day but that one special day you happen to win. Unless, the opponent is truly unworthy a win always feels a lot better than a loss. But losses are part of being in sports and an opportunity to learn some important life lessons.

This spring, my son’s man down lacrosse team, (his team has 15 players where most university teams have at least 30) has encountered a number of losses. The small team means large amounts of playing time but no time for rests or to pull out players who are struggling. Given Kayla’s injury and Scott’s pattern of losing games, the past few weeks have provided me with plenty of opportunity to reflect on the values of losing. Losing with grace requires the athlete develop his/her personal skills in composure, reflection, goal setting and resiliency.

1.Composure: to remain calm and have steady control over one’s emotions in a difficult situation.

Team sports are not for the faint of heart. Even at very young ages, large numbers of parents and assorted relatives show up at games to encourage their individual child on voraciously.  As parents, we receive annual written instructions on being positive and keeping criticism of our child, the coach or other children’s performance to our selves. Unfortunately, few parents heed these directives.  Children are berated from the sidelines for poor plays and scolded as they walk off the fields.  I have seen children leave games sobbing. As children transform into teenagers and college athletes the expectations from the crowds grow geometrically.  Winners are celebrities and losers can be booed by the fans and harassed in the media. One unfortunate Boise State University field goal kicker even received death threats for missing a field goal for a conference championship.  A player who is able to develop the composure to loose with humility, wish the other team well for their winning efforts and walk off the field with his/her self integrity in place to play another day is a great athlete and role model.

Given our cultural focus on winning, learning to lose with grace is not easy.  When my daughter, Kayla,  tore her ACL, she was up one moment kicking the ball and knocked flat the next by the opposing team player.  The referee ordered Kayla to get up.  She couldn’t move.  At that point, our coach went out and carried her off the field.  I tried to take her home but she wanted to stay for the game. She told me later at the emergency room, she was really proud of herself because she didn’t cry.  I told her it would have been fine to cry.  She said one of her goals was not to be one of the overly emotional girls on the field who cry about everything.  I hardly think anyone would judge her for crying over an injury but controlling her emotions was an important personal goal. She performed magnificently.  While I can understand the frustration of tears at a hard fought game, teams and fans need to develop the internal control to be good losers as well as good winners. Threats, name calling, and unwillingness to acknowledge the other team have no place in sports.

2. Self-reflection: to engage in serious thought about one’ action

There is nothing worse than a sore loser who blames his/her team mates, the coach, the play calling, the other team, the referees, the weather and everything else for a lack luster performance. The best athletes accept the loss as the opportunity to honestly review what he/she could have done differently and use the self-assessment  to improve their performance in the future.

3. Goal setting: to establish something you want to accomplish with measurable steps to achievement

Based on self-reflection, an athlete’s next step is to establish personal goals for improving his/her performance in concert with his team and coach. This weekend, my son’s team lost a big game to a team ranked in the top 20 in the nation.  My son’s team held the offense to a low score in the first half but were blown away in the second half and never scored at all throughout the game.  In the midst of the second half, my son missed a key, easy pass which led to an immediate goal by the other team.  Even as a mom, who knows little about the sport of lacrosse, I could see this was an error on his part. When we talked about it after the game, Scott was honest in admitting he had not played his best, he had made a number of mistakes and would have to work harder for the games coming up next weekend. My advice was to review what he could have done differently and then shake it off. There is no point in beating yourself up after a game or in life.  But there is every reason to understand what you can do to be successful the next time and take the necessary steps to improve your performance.

There is a great deal of personal satisfaction in assessing your performance, seeking ways to improve and meeting your personal goals.  Arthur Ashe, the great tennis star, explained reflection/goal process as follows; “You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.”

4: Resiliency: to recover quickly from setbacks and move forward

Unless it is the last game of the season, you and your team will be back on the field within a few days or weeks. I have seen young athletes and parents become totally discouraged by the need to go out and practice after a loss, even more so after a series of losses. I have seen young athletes quit because they aren’t winning. I have seen athletes of all ages freeze up in fear the next time on the field because their opponent is bigger, better and stronger than the team that beat them the week before. But playing on teams requires that once  the athlete chooses to play they must fully engage win or loose.  This means that regardless of the outcome of the last game,  the athlete shows up for practice, ready to participate.  To do this, week-in and week-out when a team is not winning requires an athlete  to persist in pursuing personal goals and gaining new skills without the external acclaim that comes from winning and  remain steadfastly committed to other team members. In other words, when athletes lose they must be resilient if they want to continue to play the game.  When they become resilient in sports, they will find that their ability to deal with adversity will serve them well in other life settings.

Let’s face it, as parents we have to remain resilient too. I have sat through a couple seasons of soccer without a single win. The seasons where my kids’ teams won city championships were much more fun. One year when Scott played high school varsity lacrosse, he only got to play in 2 games for about two minutes. My husband and I went to every game to be supportive. One game as we were sitting in pouring rain, I accidently dumped an umbrella of water on my husband’s head as I leaned over to speak to him. He said with a smile, “Are we having fun yet?” Actually, my answer was absolutely! To see my children engage and grow in sports has been a gift which I shall never forget.

Early this spring, my son called from college to tell us that his lacrosse team was small (15 players) and really young, mostly freshman. He wanted us to know since we were planning to attend a number of games that chances were the team wouldn’t be very good. My husband and I discussed this over several dinners and decided we would still show up at the games. We felt that the times when winning is the hardest, are also the times when our son and his team probably needed the most support.

Learning to  gracefully lose, provides important life lessons in developing composure on and off the field, being self-reflective, developing skills at personal goal setting and remaining resilient.  These are not only skills to master in sports but key aspects of living a successful life.

John Wooden, famous UCLA basketball coach who won ten NCAA National Championships in 12 years wrapped up how to address defeat in a three simple sentences; “Losing is only temporary and not all encompassing. You must simply study it, learn from it, and try hard not to lose the same way again. Then you must have the self-control to forget about it.”




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