Wednesday, January 21, 2015
We’re in the middle of an extended competitive season. The first College Football Playoff Championship ended last Monday and by the time this blog publishes we’ll know the challengers for Super Bowl XLIX. CBS has already begun the Road to March Madness hype. The Golden Globes were last week, the Grammys in two weeks, and Oscar nominees have been announced. We learned the Heisman winner in an announcement that opened the flood of MVP awards destined to last until championship contests end. It’s about winning – dreams of winning, bets on winning, predictions of winning, analysis of winning. And with winning comes its evil twin, losing. We feel the need to explain away our losses with talk about snubs, injuries, lousy coaching decisions and poor officiating.
Our adulation for winners often clouds other issues. We forgive NFL players for spousal abuse, drug dependencies, and even attempted murder if they can help ensure a win for our team. High schools with strict policies concerning behavior and eligibility will reinstate a student to a team if a teacher expresses the need for the offending student to help win a sports championship or star in the school musical. We end up willing to sell our souls for win, in fact that’s the plot premise of “Damn Yankees.” Our obsession with winning can lead to some unattractive behaviors such as taunting when we win and pouting and blame placing when we lose.
At the recent Golden Globes, George Clooney was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille award for both his extensive work in films and his tireless efforts highlighting and resolving human rights violations around the world. In his speech he addressed the issue of winners and losers. He expressed that he felt it unworthy for anyone in the room to mope about losing, 80 percent of the nominees lose, and any winner to be overly prideful. Even more significantly, those nominees represent such a small percentage of the pool of possible nominees, everyone who made a film or TV show that year. Further, those lucky enough to work in the industry are another small percentage of those who dream of being in their shoes. His point was that everyone who has realized a dream should be grateful, and not regret being singled out for particular notice. The moment of a win will burn brightly like an exploding nova and then just as quickly fade. We can’t halt time and make a win the all-consuming center of our existence. We all must move on. While we can have some warm fuzzy in our memory, we aren’t defined or sustained by any win.
We understand the language of winning – the pride, the humility, the power. Yet, losing likewise has a noteworthy expressiveness we need to learn to embrace. I’m not advocating that we shouldn’t encourage our children to train as hard as they can, to set high goals, to go for a win, and to enjoy a win when they attain it. Rather, I’m arguing that we place so much emphasis on winning that we neglect to teach our children anything about losing other than as a negative to avoid at all costs. The only universally positive connotation of losing that I can think of is losing weight. Yet children will experience more losses than wins, especially big wins. Florida State had 29 straight wins going into the Rose Bowl this year, but they lost in a rout to Oregon. Watching the team melt down pointed out the difficulty of handling loss when you have no experience with it. The quarterback, after a fumble, went to sidelines and screamed at his coach rather than taking responsibility for his error. There was in-fighting on the team, and players began to blame one another for various failings on the field. The loss was made truly ugly by the team’s inability to cope with it. A week later, coming off the high of that win, Oregon found itself being routed by Ohio State. But the team held together fighting to the end with dignity. Despite being down 22 points with less than a minute to go, they went out and played hoping for at least one more score, reinforcing that the game was more about playing than about winning. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, with no time left on the clock, scrambled in the back field chased by OSU players and then heaved a Hail Mary pass down the field that was intercepted by OSU. So, the Heisman Trophy winner ended his college career not only on a loss, but on an extremely rare interception, only his fourth of the entire season. He didn’t need to do that; he could have simply fallen on the ball since the outcome was sealed. But he believed in fighting and playing.
We need to listen to the lessons losing can teach our children. People who acknowledge their losses as a natural outcome of trying seem to be less affected by them. Instead of looking for excuses, they look for merits. They work to understand what the loss can teach them about improving and overcoming errors. They accept that losses happen, but don’t have to be repeated. Humility applies to losses as much as it does to wins. Kids need to learn to be humble enough to accept the loss without assigning blame, which may momentarily mitigate personal embarrassment but does nothing to keep team cohesiveness or reinforce self-esteem. If a child loses an individual honor or contest, it’s important to have perspective, just as Clooney pointed out. Getting to the place where you have the opportunity to win or to lose is a victory in and of itself. Certainly the instant devastation of losing can take the wind out of the sails, but the ability to listen to what the loss can tell us will ultimately make each person stronger. Robbie was the Gatorade Player of the Year for Wisconsin and placed on the ESPN Rise second-team in his senior year of high school. It was a wonderful moment for him and naturally for his proud family. I still have the commemorative bottle of Gatorade awarded to him. But so much life has come after. He had two losing seasons in college and after finally making the NCAA College Cup by winning a very difficult game, his team lost in the first round. Every win, every loss has been but one stepping stone in his hopefully very long life. His brother Bryce was sitting on the bench in his high school senior year as his team lost in the quarterfinals of the state tournament. His coach was “saving” him for the semis and the finals that never came. So he ended his high school career watching his team lose. Later at a recruiting meeting, the college coach told him, “So what. You have lots of soccer ahead of you.” And he was right.
Helping our children to keep heads up after a loss will have more significance than all our praise for a win. Adulation is an expected result of a win, but not expected with a loss. Therefore, we need to find the positives and illuminate them. Joining in on the blame game only makes losses seem undeserved and unfair, which they aren’t. They are the natural offshoot of competition. So telling a child that the team would have won with better officiating, or if the coach had played her longer, or if it hadn’t been raining, or any other excuse we can make only reinforces the idea that we shouldn’t have to be the recipients of a loss. Yet think about how often we lose every day. I enter the Home and Garden TV contests to win a house (I even use the two entries a day option). Despite trying for the Dream Home, the Urban Oasis, the Smart Home, and the Blog Cabin every year for the past decade, I haven’t won. Go figure. We buy lottery tickets and lose regularly. If we do win, it’s usually a small prize like getting two more free entries. We don’t get all green lights on that trip to the doctor when we’re ten minutes late. For most of us, the college and pro teams we support end up not making it to the finals. We might have an election year of our candidates winning, and then suffer years of watching our candidates lose. We also lose money, car keys, jewelry, important papers and teeth. Rarely can we claim personal vendettas against us in those circumstance. Things happen. We have to be able to shake it off, move on, and avoid rationalizations.
When Oregon lost the National Championship, the alumni association sent out an email thanking us for our support, encouraging us to thank our team for a great year, and asserting that heroes aren’t always victors, which I thought was a great statement. Replace the word hero with the word player and you have a wonderful reminder for your kids. The important factor is to be a player with integrity, purpose and dignity. Play games with joy, hope and good sportsmanship, win or lose. Find where improvements can be made, and accept the weaknesses which can’t be resolved. If our kids participate in several sports and after-school activities, they will be in situations where they have strength around them and other times when they will not. Yet in all circumstances we need to move towards the endgame and embrace the results which occur. While our children may need to depend on the abilities of others to secure a win (or a good grade), they have to accept that there will be some factors of victory over which they have no control. They can derive pride from their effort and their contribution to whatever results are achieved. At the very least they should be rewarded with respect for working to help others to do well. A loss doesn’t have to be the language of defeat. It can speak in the language of honor, improvement and perseverance.