As a head coach trying to build championship teams, I learned that your relationship with losing is important. A huge part of competitive excellence is how you deal with negative results.
You hear from a lot of athletes and coaches that they just “hate losing,” and often it’s in the context of explaining bad behavior. I acted like an idiot, but it’s just because of how much I really hate losing.
I don’t hate losing. I really don’t. I feel like if I hate losing, I’m putting way too much emphasis on the result. And so much goes into the result that you can’t necessarily control.
I don’t hate losing. I hate the things that prevent us from being great. I hate when teams show up on a Sunday morning tired and not ready to compete. I hate when we aren’t focused when we are running through our stuff. I hate when players give in to fatigue in practice, and stop competing. I hate when players take plays off. That’s the stuff I really hate.
Losing actually makes you better. If you evaluate it properly, losing helps you form a clear plan to improve and find success. It forces you to make changes if you want to find success.
I’m not saying I like losing. No one likes to lose. I get the same hollow feeling that everyone else gets in their stomach when we lose a game. No matter what our record is. It stinks. But is it something that I hate? It really isn’t. It is something that when you learn to deal with it, it helps make you great.
One of the best signs to me of a championship level culture is the way you bounce back in practice after a tough loss. I always feel terrible after a tough one, but the kids usually bring you back the next day. If you let them. But if you hate losing, if you are full of anger, are you really going to tell me that’s not going to affect the way you approach practice the next day? If you hate losing, my guess is you are going to hate practice the next day too, because the tone is going to be negative. And then you are going to start hating your team.
I remember losing to Amherst one year at RIC at home, in a huge game with NCAA Tournament implications. We were 17-3 at the time, and the game was a chance to prove we belonged with the elite. We played poorly, but Amherst had a lot to do with that. They were clearly better. And after the game I felt awful, but I remember in the locker room looking at our guys and thinking they were okay. It wasn’t that they accepted losing. It was just that they realized we were still 17-4, we had a chance to win a championship, and this loss wasn’t going to define us. I was the one getting ready to make too big of a deal out of the loss, when ultimately Amherst was just better than us, and they beat us. But we were still the best team in our league, and we went on to win the league and go back to the Sweet 16. Our relationship with losing was very good.
We lost one year in the Little East Tournament title game at Eastern Connecticut, despite having a great year. We had won the last two titles, and were gunning for 3 in a row, but East Conn was better. Late in the game after East Conn had taken control, I called time out. In the huddle, I told our guys “We’ve celebrated plenty of big wins and gone crazy on our home court. They’ve earned the right to do the same. When the horn goes off, we are going to return to the bench and wait until they are done celebrating so we can shake their hands and congratulate them. They deserve it.” Our guys were all nodding and saying stuff like “Heads up fellas, we’ve got nothing to be down about.” After the horn, we stood patiently by our bench for a couple of minutes while they celebrated, and when they were done we shook their hands. Our guys felt comfortable with that. Our relationship with losing was fine.
I hear the phrase “I hate losing” all the time. I’m not sure that’s healthy. We all want to win, no one likes to lose. But being a great competitor doesn’t mean you have to hate losing. You have to be able to handle losing. How well do you handle things you really hate in other areas of life? How well do you handle yourself around people you hate? You probably just avoid those people.
Well, you can’t avoid losing, no matter how good your team is. Don’t hate losing, develop a way to handle it that allows for competitive excellence.