Win at Losing
By Greg Bach
Participating in youth sports teaches kids many valuable life skills, although some of the lessons will sting.
Heartbreaking losses, failing to deliver with the game on the line or being outplayed in the closing seconds of a championship contest can reduce kids to tears.
And drive many away from sports.
Yet these inevitable losses – all kids, at all levels, and in all sports experience them – can be incredibly powerful moments for teaching values like being resilient, persistent, kicking adversity to the curb and forging ahead.
In WIN AT LOSING: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains, award-winning sports journalist Sam Weinman digs into this essential life skill of learning to lose and finding real value in those defeats that accompany everyone’s journey through sports.
He interviewed pro athletes, business executives, politicians and Hollywood stars to hear from them how these celebrated public figures were able to bounce back after epic losses. His conversations with Emmy-award winning actress Susan Lucci, golfer Greg Norman, former presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, Olympic speedskater Dan Jansen, and Ralph Cox, who was the final cut on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that stunned the world by winning gold in Lake Placid, are filled with insight.
“Failure, if done properly, is the magical opportunity to create success and happiness,” Cox says.
We caught up with Weinman, a father of two and a busy volunteer coach, to talk about his fascinating book on a topic that all parents and coaches of young athletes should be well-versed in to help kids squeeze as much as they can out of their participation:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What is one of the most interesting things you learned speaking to all the people you interviewed?
WEINMAN: I think this whole idea of framing what happens to you. Basically, one of the major themes of the book is this idea that more important than what happens to you is your interpretation of what happened. Obviously if you lose a soccer game 3-2 you’re not going to go around telling people that you won, but how you interpret that game and how you view that game is much more important than the score. It can be ‘We lost 3-2 but we actually played pretty well. It was actually one of the better games of the year in the way we passed the ball and we just got a little unlucky.’ It’s the ability to frame stories in a way that is constructive. You’re looking at things in an honest light and not trying to make things better than they were but also trying to find positives is a really powerful thing. You can do that with anything. I coach hockey and a goaltender is constantly defining himself by all the goals he let in. And you can sort of phrase it by saying, ‘Listen, look at all the saves you made. Look at that amazing save you made in the first period and that save you made in the third period really kept us in the game.’ So by framing it in that light you’re providing a morsel of encouragement there when the tendency is to be completely discouraged.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: As a volunteer coach what advice would you give to others to help them address losing with their youth teams?
WEINMAN: Just don’t wait until you lose a game or get blown out to talk about losing. I always say on the front end what are your goals? What are the things that you want to emphasize to your team? I’m a big believer in emphasizing sort of small process goals. So, if it’s baseball, we’re going to always have our gloves down in the ready position and if we do that at every at bat of every inning that’s a success. Let’s define success differently; success for us is we’re going to have quality at bats and we’re not going to swing at bad pitches. Now suddenly you’re defining success differently because you set small, achievable goals on the front end that even if you lose you can point to some sort of success. And I’m not one of these people who wants to gloss over winning and losing. Obviously winning is satisfying and we want to win because if anything it helps to validate the work you put in. At 8 years old winning should be inconsequential, but you do like the kids to feel good about what they are doing and their progress. It would be misleading to say that it doesn’t matter. But if you can set some really achievable, small goals that you can point to regardless of the outcome that really helps.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can youth coaches help their players not focus on the negative?
WEINMAN: In any kind of losing episode there are two things: one is there is some good things you can take away from any disappointment. It could be that the team worked really hard, or stuck to the game plan, so it’s constantly focusing on those positive elements. And the other thing is to really focus on the lessons that you learned. Like ‘hey, we really fell apart in the third period and it showed that our skating isn’t at the level that we need it to be and we’re going to work on our skating next week as that’s going to be our real focus so we can get better.’ So it’s constantly looking at the positive lessons that are sort of crystalized by these negative outcomes. So rather than saying ‘we stink’ it’s ‘this is what we are going to get better at because this proved to us that we can get better at this one area.’ It’s just turning a negative thought a little bit on its head and saying we’re going to turn this into a positive because it’s an opportunity to really improve our weaknesses.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What do you hope people take away from reading the book?
WEINMAN: The biggest message is that losing is something that can be embraced. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to win and I’m not anti-competition. I’m a fairly competitive person so I don’t want people to shy away from competition. If anything, what I hope happens is that because the book explains that losing can be not only OK, but many times the best possible outcome, it makes you less afraid to engage in competition. We should be striving to do our best but when things don’t work out we should take whatever lessons there are from that.
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