Losing is hard, and dealing with losing is a big part of team sports. Dealing with failure is essential in any leadership position, but is made harder by the dynamics of teams sports. There is a scoreboard in public, there is a record in the paper, so most everyone will judge you on wins and losses. And in the pressure to win at the highest levels in any sport and it makes dealing with losing that much harder.
We all hate to lose, but we also don’t want a hangover from losing to effect us in our next game. The negativity of a loss can last a long time if you let it, and the impact can be long-term. So figuring out how to learn from the mistakes made in a loss but also putting them behind you is crucial.
This is actually something I learned from my players at Rhode Island College by taking my cues from them. Granted, I was very lucky in that we were the best (or one of the best) teams in the league every year, so we were used to winning. And we were confident in our ability to win, no matter what. However, having won so much, every single game mattered, at a level where you had to win close to 80% of your games to even have a chance at an at-large bid. So that created pressure on every result, and you’d think would make losing even tougher to deal with.
I remember it was like my 4th year at RIC and we had established ourselves as an elite program in our league and in New England. We played Amherst every year in early February, and they were a national power every year. So it was a huge game, to help get you into the NCAA Tournament or to get you home games the first weekend. We lost to Amherst at home that year in a game we felt like we should have won. We were having a really good year, but that game was huge to get us locked in to the NCAA Tournament and probably a host pod. So losing really hurt.
I remember being really disappointed in the loss and pretty angry with how we had played. But after the game in the locker room, our guys didn’t seem that phased by it. They were down that we lost, but it didn’t seem to really bother them. And that bothered me. I rarely say anything of substance to my team after a game because usually it’s very emotionally and often I’ll just get it wrong. So I didn’t really say anything about it. But it definitely bothered me.
I spoke to a friend of mine in coaching that night after the loss and I explained the situation to him. I told him I wasn’t sure we took it seriously enough, that it didn’t seem like losing really bothered our guys. And he asked “Do you really want losing to bother your guys? What kind of impact do you want it to have?”
That was really interesting. I wanted to correct the things we did wrong, but did I really want it to bother them? That might make me feel better, but would it make my team better? I wasn’t so sure.
And then he asked me what our record was now, and I told him, “17-4.” And his response was just, “Oh.” I think I got his point.
The next day I saw a couple of my players before practice and they seemed fine. They obviously weren’t happy with the loss, but they weren’t going to carry it with them. I kind of just observed, rather than saying anything about it, because I wanted to see how they would react. We got to practice, and we got after it like we always did. We had an edge to us and a determination about us, but we weren’t down or negative with each other. I was glad I didn’t inject my emotion into our team that day, because I’m sure it would have been negative. We had a really good day of practice, correcting some of the mistakes we made but still competing with confidence.
I started to realize that day that your players can actually bring you back after a tough loss. That sometimes inserting your emotion into that situation, where you take every game as life and death, probably isn’t the right thing to do. The fact that the players all think they are Superman and nothing can phase them is probably a good thing in that situation. Maybe it’s a little bit irrational, but they don’t think losing is normal or that it is ever going to happen again. So they are going to go about their business regardless of that one result.
I’ve never been the guy who wouldn’t let his team watch a move on a bus after a loss, or who got up and yelled at guys who were laughing and joking after a bad result. I just don’t think we should tell them how to feel. You have to remember, as a coach it’s life to you. It’s what you do for a living, and how you feed your family. It’s a game to them, something important to them for sure but it’s something they do as part of their day as a nineteen-year-old. We probably take it a little more seriously than they do, and that’s okay.
I’ve learned that great teams and great players have a good relationship with losing. They don’t accept it and they don’t like it. But it doesn’t impact them in such a way that they can’t come back and prepare the next day. They learn from it, and they move forward. I’m sure that the majority of the negativity that might ruin the next day’s practice is coming from you, not from them.
So when you are dealing with a tough loss, and you don’t want a hangover to carry over, take your cues from your players. Let them laugh a little bit and be themselves. Don’t threaten them before tomorrow’s practice. Don’t make walking into the gym the next day the most miserable experience of their lives. You may not feel great, and neither do they, but their youthful belief and spirit can really help you in that spot. They will bounce back easier than you will, so let them do it. They’ll bring you back with them, and your team will be better for it.