Monday, September 08, 2014
Good Grief! The Brewers can’t put a win together and have now fallen to second place in the NL Central Division. My grandson’s high school varsity football team lost badly last Friday night. Then he played Saturday morning on his freshman team and suffered a 47-21 loss. Manchester United seems to be continuing last year’s lackluster effort in the new English Premier League season. But none of this compares to some of the worst (best?) losing records in history. The 2003 Detroit Tigers lost 118 out of 162 games. In the 1972-73 season, the Philadelphia 76ers endured 73 losses out of 82 games. From 1992 to 2009, the Pittsburgh Pirates notched 17 consecutive losing seasons. On Jan. 13, 2007, the California Institute of Technology’s basketball team beat Bard College 81-52, a resounding victory made even sweeter because it snapped a 207 game losing streak that dated back to 1996. I’ve written about winning the last two weeks, however most of us find our kids on teams that toggle between wins and losses. So we really understand the lows nearly as much as we do the highs.
Accepting that losses happen isn’t the same thing as handling them gracefully. I actually think we remember the details of the losses better than the details of a win. We have to rationalize how our team managed to come up short, so we concentrate on the bad calls, the unfair play, the unlucky bounces, and the tough competition. The “if only’s” become the foundation of any post-game conversation. Losses can also send us into a tailspin of funk where we focus so much on the outcome that we forget any semblance of enjoyment. The younger players generally bounce back from a loss, especially if an after-game snack is available. They have more of an immediate investment in any moment getting attracted by whatever shiny object appears in their frame of reference. We parents tend to dwell on losses trying to make sense of them, and certainly dejection looms large when losses come in a string. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum having lived with a spectacular run of wins and a depressing slew of losses, so I’ve seen the reactions. We parents generally fall into one of four groups, each of which helps us address our disappointments and frustrations.
The first group is what I call the Eeyores, those parents who can’t see anything but the dark clouds on the horizon. Eeyore’s gloomy ruminations are famous in Winnie the Pooh stories. His idea of optimism is that the worst hasn’t happened yet. “It’s snowing still…and freezing…However we haven’t had an earthquake lately.” Parents in this group see a loss as just a precursor to worse outcomes. “This was an easy team, and we lost. Think what will happen next week when we meet the league champion.” “We were lucky to avoid major injuries, but they’re inevitable given how weak the team is.” Even the coach of Cal Tech after the losing streak ended exhibited his Eeyore. He gave into his opinion that despite the win, the future was still bleak, and in the post-game speech went with “Everyone outmatches us in size, speed and athletic ability. Everyone.” That’s classic Eeyore – embrace the worst.
The second group is “The Defiant Ones.” Unable to accept a loss, these parents insist the team was robbed. “We only lost because the referees were lousy.” “The long grass slowed our game down.” “The other team played dirty.” Rather than figure out what could be improved, these parents argue that the damage was externally visited upon the team. They play the “if only” game better than anyone. If only the refs had been fairer, if only the weather hadn’t delayed the game, if only there hadn’t been mud puddles in front of the goal, and on and on and on, never dealing with the realities. Defiant Ones don’t just rationalize, they out and out argue that the result was based on unfair conditions. The Brewers have been on a losing skid not capitalizing on players in scoring position, fielding badly, and exhibiting lackluster pitching. So I was a bit surprised when the manager, Ron Roenicke, blamed the home plate umpire for the Brewer’s loss to San Diego. He argued that the umpire, “terrible behind home-plate,” forced the Brewer closer to give up a home run that tied the game in the 9th. San Diego ultimately won. Roenicke complained that the umpire called balls on two pitches which were clearly strikes, compelling his closer to “have to pitch” to the batter. I’m not convinced anyone other than the pitcher was for letting loose a fat one. Of course, had he walked the batter, it might have been less risky than what happened. The pitch was the responsibility of the closer, the catcher, and the manager, not the umpire. Still, Roenicke’s interview after the game showed that his defiance was in full bloom. He laid the blame for the loss clearly on the shoulders of the umpire.
Down three goals with 20 seconds left, the third group, “The Cheerleaders,” are at their finest. No matter how insurmountable the odds, the cheerleaders keep urging the team onward. They handle losses by hoping for a miracle and encouraging the team to do the same. These are the parents who keep up the positive banter on the sidelines clear to the bitter end. When the kids come off the field, no matter how badly they played, the parents tell them it’s okay and they did great. Rather than let anyone point out what might be adjusted to create a better outcome next time, these parents are content to stick with the status quo, put the best face on it and keep the kids happy. In their world, bringing up improvements implies someone failed so we just need to clap and believe in fairies. Although negative criticism isn’t beneficial, not providing any criticism is equally unproductive. Cheerleaders concentrate so much on making kids feel good, that the kids can’t have honest disappointment. It’s difficult to improve if a team is constantly told that inadequate play is supportable without modification.
An offshoot of The Cheerleaders and the opposite of The Eeyores are “The Pollyannas.” It’s not so much that they constantly tout everything as wonderful like Cheerleaders, but that they pick one positive aspect and use it to overshadow everything bad no matter how much more honest the bad is compared to the good. Their excessive optimism refuses to accept the facts of an unfortunate situation. In the book, Pollyanna is famous for playing the “Glad Game,” opting to find something to be happy about no matter how dire the situation. Pollyannas are nearly as fatalistic in their positivity as the Eeyores are in their negativity. They sugarcoat losses to the point that you can’t even recognize them as shortfalls for the team. When the team loses, the loss is pushed aside in favor of some sliver of good news. I call them the “at least” crowd. At least the uniforms looked good. At least the rain held off. At least there were bleachers. No matter how trivial the point, these parents opt for a weak silver lining. It’s a sunny outlook but it also ironically clouds the work a team needs to do to create a win. Pollyannas don’t give kids a chance to mourn a loss or talk about it because they are too busy touting some inconsequential piece of the game that went well.
Aspects of each of these groups can be useful and even welcomed when a team experiences a devastating loss or a string of losses. Being honest about faults like Eeyore helps kids look at a game without minimizing inadequate play. Giving kids a chance to vent with defiance at how unfair some of the game actually was, allows them to distance themselves from the lousy outcome until they are ready to talk about it. Cheering them on, despite the futility of hope, shows kids that we support them no matter what. Finding the good in any disappointment allows kids to take something positive from the experience. The danger comes when we focus too much on any of these types, giving into the group behavior as a way to avoid dealing with a loss and learning from it. Some losses do roll off the backs easily. Losses can shape the character of our players by teaching them how to deal with defeats and to grow from them.
Last Friday night two Texas high schools, Greenville and North Garland, competed against one another, neither of which had won a game last season. Greenville actually has a 40-game losing streak, one of the longest in Texas history, meaning that many seniors could graduate from the school without ever enjoying a win. No parent would ever wish that experience on their child in the name of forming character. We don’t need to be completely beat down to appreciate a win from a loss. I’m sure those kids will welcome some Cheerleaders and Pollyannas on their sidelines and around the dinner table. Losses should be a learning experience (as well as wins), yet we can help mitigate the sting a bit without muddying the waters too much. By the way, Greenville finally broke its 40-game losing streak with a 24-21 win over North Garland. So deal with that, Eeyore.