The Art of Losing: How it Can Save Us All

Posted February 19, 2016

I’ve lost a lot.

In 31 years of board games, arguments, fights with friends, and athletic competitions, I’ve been on the losing end countless times. I’ve lost championship games, heart-breaking last second collapses, and seen my athletic career end while another team celebrated just feet away from me. It never gets easier, and I’ve never been what anybody would refer to as a “good loser.” However, I think, whether I always put it into practice or not, I’ve learned a lot from losing, about how to do it, but also about myself.

I was thinking about this a lot over the past couple of weeks after Josh Norman got ridiculed for crying after the Super Bowl, Cam Newton stormed off in the middle of an interview, and Ronda Rousey admitted to contemplating suicide after her loss to Holly Holm. Then it all came to a head when the varsity basketball team I coach lost an overtime heart-breaker to a higher seeded team in the playoffs this past Wednesday.

Losing sucks. Anybody who tells you it’s okay to lose has never cared enough about what they were competing in. “It’s only a game,” is something people say when you’re playing Risk, but if you’re talking about something you’ve spent months or years working towards, then it’s beyond just being a game.

Which is what lead a few of my players to break into tears after the loss. They’d given up massive amounts of time, sacrificed a social life and added extra stress to weeknight homework for months in pursuit of a championship. They’d started out the year on fire and then had the rug pulled out from underneath them. One player came back from an appendectomy just in time for playoffs, and, for some, this would be the last competitive basketball game they ever played.

It wasn’t just a game; it was a culmination of months and years worth of work. It was a fight they were in with their closest friends, pushing not to let each other down. And they lost.

As a coach it was gut-wrenching to see them cry, some even collapsing to the floor. But I was also glad. It meant they were invested. It meant that this meant something to them; that this team, this sport, their teammates, all mattered to them.

Which is why it’s infuriating to see people openly mock athletes when they cry after big losses. If you’re of a certain age, you recall the public shame Adam Morrison suffered in 2006 after breaking down when his upset-minded Gonzaga lost to UCLA in the NCAA Sweet 16:

Sure, he should have been mocked for that awful thing he called a mustache, but he’d just spent four years helping to elevate a small college team to prominence and was within seconds of achieving something thousands of college basketball players dream about. His team had been up 17 points at moments in that game and had never trailed until there were eight seconds left; yet, his entire college career ended in the blink of an eye.

People want to get mad at him for not being able to control his emotions in the moment like it’s somehow more acceptable to cry after an episode of The Bachelor or scream at somebody who touches you on the subway?

More recently, Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman received some heat on Twitter after being vocally confident in his abilities all season, then crying on the sideline as he watched his team fall in the Super Bowl.

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Why we take pleasure in mocking people who are emotionally invested in something they’ve lived their whole lives for is beyond me. Of course Norman was going to be upset. He had been dominant all year (and in the Super Bowl, actually) and was within a few plays of having his dream come true, only to watch other people achieve it in front of his eyes. Any normal human being would be upset, not mock somebody for having an emotional reaction to the moment.

However, while intense emotional reactions are the norm, knowing how to control them is equally important. Every child playing a sport has been told about the concept of being a “sore loser,” meaning that they refuse to accept the outcome or don’t show respect to the winning team. This was much discussed recently when Cam Newton left the podium during an interview after the Super Bowl.

While the concept of asking an athlete who just lost the biggest game of his/her life to answer media questions is inherently flawed, Cam knew what his responsibility was and wasn’t able to handle it with maturity. He let his emotions get the best of him, the same way Ronda Rousey did when she admitted to contemplating suicide after losing her MMA title to Holly Holm.

While many people view Rousey’s comments as heart-breaking, it’s hard not to see them as equally troubling. Yes, she was undefeated and frequently discussed as unbeatable, something that was inherently part of her persona. However, she’s also a competitive athlete who had lost bouts before in her judo career and should have known that losing was a possibility in her line of work.

Feeling the need to take your own life because of one poor performance shows an inability to accept the emotional toll of losing. As former MMA star and football player Brock Lesnar said in response to Rousey’s comments, “you have to learn how to lose before you can actually win.

The act of losing is an emotional roller-coaster that nobody is quite prepared for until they have to face it themselves. The emotions come strong and swift, but they’re only an indication that you really invested in what you were pursuing. In a world where everybody gets a trophy, students aren’t allowed to get bad grades, and sporting events can end in a tie, we’re creating generations of boys and girls who have no idea how to lose and run the risk of them responding to it in the same way Newton and Rousey did.

Losing is a natural part of life. We will all have something taken from us, whether it’s a job, a relationship,  or a loved one.  We learn from these moments; they make us more complete people. We’re so scared of losing that everything we do is focused on what’s easy and what doesn’t put us at risk. That’s why people sit in front of a computer and mock those who have given their life to the pursuit of something, because they are unable to imagine what that might be like; they’ve prevented themselves from investing fully in anything.

Maybe that’s why we, as a society, are facing a lot of the problems we are today. We’ve tried to insulate ourselves so much from the pain of losing that we don’t know how to handle failures when they appear, and they will always appear. Instead of mocking the pain of losing, or preventing our kids from ever experiencing it, we should accept and embrace it and teach ourselves how to respond when we get knocked down.

After all, you need to learn how to lose before you can actually win.