Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Learning from Loss

In our ruthlessly competitive culture, there is a huge premium on winning. Unfortunately, there are some pretty obvious negative consequences to this emphasis. First and foremost among these consequences: 'always be a winner' turns quickly into 'winner takes all' and then into 'win at all costs'.  But another insidious cost of this attitude is that losing becomes unacceptable.  In the arena of youth sport, we have managed this shame often by veering toward the equally unrealistic position of 'everybody's a winner', with score-less games, equal playing time for everyone, and trophies for all.  So, how is a young athlete to sort out this contradiction?  My answer: preach a gospel of losing.  We shouldn't preach this gospel for its own sake, but given that losing is more common than its opposite, we should remove the shame from it and celebrate it for all the things it can teach us not only about life but, well, winning.  By being better losers, we can in fact become better winners.
           In the very first post of this blog (“Scott’s Lytham Opportunity”), I wrote about Adam Scott's collapse in the last four holes at the British Open in 2012.  In that post, I suggested that if he really wanted to contend again in a major championship, he would do well not to shy away from the bitter sting of that defeat, but to really approach it, expand it and investigate it closely in order to mine it for all that it could teach him about how he handled himself in that situation so that he could master it the next time.  We'll, if his 2013 year is any indication, he did just that: winning the year's first major in a nail-biting and gutsy playoff, contending again at the British, finishing very high in the season's standings, and just completing a torrid stretch of three major victories in his native Australia.  In short, rather than shriveling up in defeat, he gained strength from it.  Indeed, he even stated at the time, as reporters were asking him if his terrible loss meant that he wasn't destined to win a major, "No, in fact, it has shown me just the opposite: that I can win a major, that I belong to be there down the stretch, that my hard work is paying off."  Now, unfortunately for me, I'm not Adam Scott's sport performance guy, but if I were, here is what I would have preached to him in 2012 that I think every athlete needs to know about the value of losing.
                       Learning from loss: Every loss has a crucial juncture, a crisis point that we would like to go back to and re-do if we could.  Those moments are the ones to investigate. Did they come from a technical weakness or from a psychological one, or, from a combination of the two?  Or, did it stem from improper preparation?  Put the loss on an x-Ray machine and go through it, detail by painful detail.  Doing so will both teach you to avoid those mistakes in the future, and will inure you to the shame of losing.  Because one thing I can guarantee you of for certain: if your performance is only motivated by the fear of losing, you will lose often, gain little satisfaction from your victories, and not grow as an athlete or person.  You cannot go for broke when you are clenching the till so fearfully.
                       Practice to lose.  In our winner culture, we have become so loss-averse that we think that in order to have winners, we must train winners.  But, often a top athlete is only tested in defeat.  And so, the top athletes often train under conditions where winning is almost impossible, so that flaws and mental weaknesses can be exposed rather than hidden.  Such practices include playing against stronger players, devising pressure situations in practice, and most of all, analyzing what broke down in those situations.  In order for such an analysis to be truly effective, it should be conducted with a ruthless honesty and relentless compassion at one and the same time.  Shame breeds fear which increases the odds that we are going to play from a protective rather than an appetitive position.
                       Losing and dying:  Many athletes equate losing with dying.  They might not be conscious of this association, but it is there.  And how could it not be, if they have  been bred to be winners, if their culture celebrates winners so extravagantly, and if they have lived sheltered from the real consequences of loss?  Perhaps even their parents, in synch with their culture, have adapted an ego orientation with them with regard to their sport participation (“Ego&Mastery”).  Often this athlete reveals himself by the temper tantrums he throws upon losing.  For him, we should burn the ring of falsehood that surrounds him by over-exposing him to loss.  Doing so will test his determination and love for the sport, and will burn away the protective carapace which he has built around himself, sealing him off from learning the lessons of loss. 
        I am not preaching losing for the sake of humiliation.  I do not think humiliation is a good training method.  But, on the same token, there are very serious negative consequences to training our young people with an eye toward winning rather than with an eye toward process.  I will leave you with a quote from one of sport's most loss-averse losers, a character whose downfall is only mirrored in the pages of Greek tragedy, Lance Armstrong, and his attitude toward losing: "I like to win.  But more than anything, I can't stand the idea of losing, because to me, that equals death."  So, let's raise athletes with a stronger sense of themselves than that.  Let's look loss right in the eye, so we are winning with joy rather than relief.  Let's learn from loss.

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