Monday, February 15, 2016
After every televised sporting competition, there’s the ritual of a Q&A. That consists of either a 6-foot-3 athlete bending over a 5-foot-2 reporter while awkwardly responding to a query amidst a jumble of noise and celebration, or the same athlete behind a bank of microphones in a more civilized atmosphere of a press conference. In either case, the questions are general, rhetorical and expected, with only a small variation between those aimed at victors and those aimed at the defeated. “How did you feel when the last second shot (fell or didn’t fall)? What do you attribute the (win or loss) to? How do you plan to (celebrate or regroup)? What was the turning point of the game? When did you know you were going to (win or lose)? Who do you feel most contributed to the (win or loss)? What would you have done differently? Why did you go with that (amazing or disastrous) play?” You know the drill. You could ask the questions and answer them as well. So why do networks insist on these post-mortems? I’d argue they want to sustain the euphoria of a win for the fans and to extend the humiliation of a loss, which adds drama to the proceedings. That was clearly evident in Cam Newton’s press conference after the Panthers lost to the Broncos in last weekend’s Super Bowl.
On display was a 26-year-old who had won nearly every contest he ever entered. He had just earned the NFL MVP award. He had been a No. 1 draft pick. This season he was responsible for 45 touchdowns and more rushing yards than every teammate except Jonathan Stewart. He led the Panthers to a 15-1 regular season. He relished the winning with boyish enthusiasm, well-known for his sideline antics. With all this success, he had seen the peak of Everest only to have a sudden storm out of Denver cut his ascent short. Now he had to slump in a chair, a hoodie obscuring much of his head, and answer the ridiculous questions of reporters who already knew the answers. “Can you put a finger on why Carolina didn’t play the way it normally plays?” “Got outplayed.” “Is there a reason why?” “Got outplayed, bro.” “Can you put into words the disappointment you feel right now?” “We lost.” When disappointment was brought up yet again, it was too much. Cam shook his head, said “I’m done, man,” and walked out. Watching Cam squirm, visibly upset, looking every bit like the kid called into the principal’s office to explain why he pulled the fire alarm during the school assembly, I couldn’t help but see my own sons in him.
Frequently as parents, we attempt to analyze a loss right after a match, usually on the car ride home. The conversation is filled with “if onlys,” and we ask our young player to explain the setbacks, unwittingly rubbing salt in the wounds. We’ve all seen that dejected hang-dog look on our child’s face when he or she just wants to melt into the upholstery and try to escape the bad feelings. Yet all too often we become that hungry press corps demanding answers to questions better left unspoken. We’re disappointed and we’re trying to make sense of what just happened. Unfortunately, we end up expecting our kids to do it for us.
What can make the situation worse is when the questions carry the sting of accusation. “Why didn’t you pass the ball when you got trapped?” “Didn’t you see Heather was open to take a shot?” “Did the coach tell you to hang back instead of staying with your opponent?” “Why didn’t you make a four-man wall?” We don’t mean the questions to be critical, but the tone is clear as they ring in the kids’ ears. The last thing they want to do is try to defend a mistake or revisit a missed opportunity. Yet we do ask the worst possible questions at the worst possible time. Robbie used to come off the field, brush past us, and announce “I don’t want to talk about it.” We learned we ignored that admonishment at our peril!
There were lots of questions after the Super Bowl that I’m sure many viewers wanted answers. News organizations survive by “breaking the story first.” No one is willing to wait for explanations. In a family, though, there’s no such pressure. We can let the analysis evolve when our player is ready to talk. Usually Robbie or Bryce would be silent for about half the trip the home, but eventually they would spout something that let us know they wanted to vent. “I can’t believe I missed that shot,” or “I knew he was going left why did I fade right?” Even when the door is opened, parents don’t have to rush through. Kids need the chance to process what happened, to create their own story, and to be comfortable with their vision. Losing is an important part of the learning process. It’s not fun, and can be very painful, but when kids learn their own best coping techniques, every subsequent loss is better handled. Constant queries and post-game analyses don’t give our kids the space they need to absorb and deal with loss. If they continuously feel solely responsible for or accused of creating a defeat, they become personally defeated and may want to quit. After a loss during the State Championship, Bryce’s coach read the team such a litany of blame that the kids exited the field looking shell-shocked. Three kids quit the team that day, which left us vulnerable for another loss in the next game. Bryce still talks about that dressing down he got (and as goalkeeper, he was particularly singled out). I give him a lot of credit for sticking with both the team and with soccer because those players were doubly humiliated – first by the actual loss and then by their coach pointing out all their short-comings just minutes after leaving the pitch.
Losses can become watershed moments for players in either a positive or negative way. It’s important that losses be seen not as irreparable events but as building blocks. Even Cam Newton acknowledged to the press and the fans that Carolina would be “back.” Kids need to put losses in perspective. In every contest there is a winner and loser, that’s the very essence of sport. The point is not to blame losses on particular people or decisions, rather it’s to find those instances where changes can happen. Coaches should approach losses with the attitude of “let’s see how we can avoid the pitfalls of this match again” by presenting a plan for attacking the next contest through training and development. Parents need to avoid pinning kids down to addressing particular mistakes so that they become defensive and unsure. Instead we can be the cheerleaders we should be and leave the training and any criticism to the coaches. Stick to positives: “Your team wasn’t afraid to keep shooting. We were so proud of how the team kept fighting. Those forwards were fast but you kept up with them really well. The midfield is definitely learning how to work together; I see so much improvement.” Let our kids decide when they want to talk about concerns and let them ask the questions, revealing to us how much or how little advice they want. It’s okay to be disappointed about a loss, that’s only natural, but to use a loss to express criticism isn’t what our kids need. If we can lose the negative attitude towards losing we’ll have a positive impact our own child’s attitude.