Tuesday, July 05, 2016
An apt visual metaphor encapsulating the dashed dreams of the UEFA Euro 2016 teams was cut away at the end of one match to a lone soccer ball floating along the Seine and bumping into the barges traveling downstream. The announcer opined, “Somewhere there’s a little soccer player sadly watching his ball disappear towards the sea.” When England lost to Iceland, it was much more than a soccer ball slipping down the river – it was a nation’s pride. A country of 53 million couldn’t assemble a soccer team to beat a country of 350,000. That would be like a club team from Madison, Wis. beating the English. Unbelievable and embarrassing. Big losses are far more humbling than we expect because we cling so strongly to the promise of a win. I am always leery of the parent, who upon seeing her child’s bracket, announces confidently, “This will be a piece of cake.” Be careful. You may only come away with crumbs.
No one wants to think about losing. The point of competition is to be victorious. Kids learn this lesson very early. They see people’s reactions to wins and losses and quickly understand that winning is far superior to losing. Life is about achieving. Grades, reading and math placements, social hierarchies, NBA Finals, streaking through the yellow light, winning an argument, or becoming a starter on a team are just a few of the ways kids witness and experience the expectation of triumph. However winning exists in a binary arrangement – losing is the corollary. As parents we tend to avoid focusing on what we consider to be a negative. Yet we have to accept that our kids will lose at some point, and they need our help in coping with losses as much as celebrating success.
Pat Summitt passed away a few days ago. She was the powerhouse coach of women’s basketball at University of Tennessee. Her numbers are amazing. She coached her teams to eight national championships and 1,098 career wins, the most of any NCAA D1 coach male or female. She became the coach on a fluke when she was hired as a coaching teaching assistant and then promoted immediately when the head coach unexpectedly quit. It was 1974, she was 22 years old, and Title IX, assuring equality between women’s and men’s college athletics, was just two years old. She never had a losing season finishing 1974 at 16-8 and moving on to 18 NCAA Final Four appearances, securing the 1987 National Championship and following with seven more championships over her 38-year career. When she retired, Summitt had only 208 losses. She is obviously remembered and honored for the wins, but it was the losses, many of them coming in runs, that really defined her coaching style and ultimate success. As she wrote to one player, “Winning isn’t the point. Wanting to win is the point. Always doing your best is the point.” Every loss was a teachable moment that could lead to better play and perhaps better outcomes.
Despite all her wins, Summit couldn’t escape one final devastating loss. How she handled it shows that we are often more defined by our losses than by our wins. In 2011 she was diagnosed with early dementia Alzheimer’s type. In 2012 she retired from coaching and made it her purpose to shine a light on the issues of Alzheimer’s. She raised millions of dollars for research through a foundation she began, wrote a memoir detailing her battle with dementia, and spoke as often and for as long as her disease allowed. Tuesday, June 28th she lost that battle, passing away in the early morning. She told a friend that she thought she would be remembered for her wins, but realized she would rather be remembered for how she fought her disease, a battle she knew she would ultimately lose.
When we teach our children how to manage losing, we aren’t handing them a pessimistic or fatalistic world view. Although steeped in winning, Summit relied on her losing experiences to give her the strength and the determination to meet the loss of her memory and of her life head-on. The way players and teams handle losses often shapes their character in much more significant ways than winning does. Losing means that we have had a failure in our plans, and how we pick ourselves up from failure can have a powerful impact on how we move towards successes. England will win again. They will assess how the loss occurred, find new leadership, adjust the team make-up, and train to overcome the shortcomings that led to the loss. The 2018 World Cup is close at hand, other European soccer tournaments will test their readiness, and the team has the Olympics just weeks away. Iceland never even earned a spot in the UEFA Euro prior to this year, so their win to catapult them into a quarterfinal with France was so far off the radar as to be impossible, yet they did it. The win was stupendous and will be remembered in the annals of soccer history like the US win over England at the 1930 World Cup. But the Iceland win won’t suffice to create a legacy team going forward any more than the US’s 1930 victory turned us instantly into a soccer power to be reckoned with. Lionel Messi’s missed shootout shot in the finals of the Copa America cost Argentina the win. It’s a loss Messi will remember far more sharply and often than his many victories. Yet it won’t diminish his many accomplishments and the fact that he remains the best soccer player in the world. Losses should not strike us down; they should motivate and build us.
It’s not easy for kids to take that point of view. It’s especially difficult when they see the disappointment and even disapproval in their parents. Kids want to be loved, but they also want to be respected. They may not doubt our love, but after seeing how we react following a loss, they may not feel respected. It’s difficult to invest so much in winning and have that investment end in defeat. It’s even harder when the defeat comes after building to a win like in a tournament or a league season. The more kids win, the more they expect it to continue. As parents we must never forget that one word of displeasure can wipe out a boatload of praise. It’s okay for our kids to be fully committed to winning, but as parents we need to take ego out of the equation and not be so fervently cheering for a win that we end up expressing annoyance to the point that the team would lose or that our child or another teammate was complicit in the loss. Our role is to provide perspective not irritation. Our children will express anger, but we need to steer their emotions towards, if not the positives of the match, at least the significant takeaways.
As kids grow and move through life there will be plenty of losses to encounter. If they end up falling apart every time they get disappointed, defeated, or fail, then the loss becomes powerfully damaging. They can be angry or sad, which is a normal emotional reaction, but they also need to shake it off, typically by finding a way to make a loss useful. We can offer support by acknowledging the difficulty and the sadness, but refrain from expressing our own negativity towards anything or anyone. We should take the opportunity to guide our children through loss and to come out of it stronger and smarter.
The English National Team will have many more games to play, so they can’t wallow in one loss. Lionel Messi will be called upon to shoot many more penalty kicks, so he can’t let this miss negatively affect the rest of those shots. The young player who accidently kicked his ball into the Seine will kick many more balls, several of them into unrecoverable places. The parents of the child who lost the ball in the river will deal with that frustration, buy another ball, and wait for the next time they are told, “I lost my ball.” Every loss will elicit a response. How that response is shaped and expressed can have a huge impact on how future losses are handled. So our responsibility is to help our children cope with and respond to loss.
The ball drifting aimlessly yet purposely towards an open sea makes a good metaphor, highlighting the way many of us feel after a loss. The result was not inevitable, but the aftermath seems to be a sense of humiliation, sadness, frustration, and anger follows. A loss has a finality which can appear to be all-encompassing. Yet we parents understand that events are not the “end of the world” though they may be perceived as such. We can use our own experiences to show our children how people can bounce back better than before. Something is lost, but something can be found during adversity. We can provide the example of dealing calmly and appropriately with loss as long as we don’t take our children’s losses personally. We don’t become lesser parents because our kids have a loss or a failure. Instead we prove to be better parents when we give our children the tools to handle and learn from loss.