As a player, parent, or coach we have probably felt both the exhilaration of victory and the agony of defeat in a sports environment. But there is a better way that will allow us to experience the joy of the journey. Playing for the love of the game can guarantee a positive outcome every time we, and those we are leading, step into the arena of our competitive experience.
Several years ago, one of my close friends died in an automobile accident. Damien and I had grown up together going to school and playing sports and had both moved back to our hometown. We each had three children and they were all about the same ages. Damien coached my son’s youth baseball team, and he was great at teaching the kids the fundamentals while also making sure they had fun.
After the first game of the season, Damien sent me a text message since I was at my other son’s baseball game. He let me know that my son had done well. He also commented the kids “had a smile on their face and you could tell they were having fun,” even though they lost on the scoreboard by quite a few runs.
I responded to him, “You are doing a good job with them and it will pay off in the future.”
Damien responded with some great perspective. He said, “Wins and losses don’t matter. If they are having fun and improving as the year goes on is the only thing that matters. It is nice to see several in that young group just really love playing the game. That is the nice thing. They want to play.”
The world would be a better place if all youth sports coaches had Damien’s perspective.
Winning is a Mindset
My favorite memory of Damien is one for which I was not actually present, but because I knew him so well I can picture the moment vividly in my mind. My wife relayed the story about what happened at the end of one of the baseball games he coached the summer he died. My son and his son, who were six years old at the time, went up and asked Damien if our team had won the game (we had lost the game by about ten runs, but we often did not tell the kids the score).
He asked the boys, “Do you think you won?”
They responded with huge smiles, “Yes!”
Damien proclaimed, “Well then you won the game.” Then they celebrated like they had won the World Series.
Damien understood that if we give our best effort and have fun and enjoy playing the game the right way, then we are winners. Les Brown once declared that in this world there are winners, there are losers, and there are people who have not discovered how to win. Sure, as we get older we start paying attention to the score, and things become more “competitive” than when we first begin. It is important to teach our children that they may not always win on the scoreboard but why should the measurement of how we feel about ourselves change?
Did we give our best effort? It shouldn’t even be, “Did we play well?” Mistakes happen, slumps occur, and we can give our best effort but not necessarily play well. Our best effort at the moment does not always equate to our best performance.
Did we respect the game and play it the right way, no matter what the outcome? It is easy to feel good when things are going well, and just as easy to feel bad when things are not.
Did we learn something from our experience? In every game, win or lose, there are opportunities to learn how to improve our skills and how to improve our character as well.
The outcome does not determine the value of the process. As Coach Norman Dale declared in the famous movie Hoosiers, “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re going to be winners!” Winning is a mindset; it is a mindset that we have the character necessary for greatness already inside us. We just have to learn to focus on not letting things outside our control get in the way. It has nothing to do with the result and everything to do with the process.
Does this mean everyone deserves a trophy? Absolutely not! Giving an external reward for merely showing up is not teaching our children a life lesson. But if all we are playing for is the trophy so it can boost our ego, then that can be as detrimental as the participation trophy. What we need to do is inspire kids to play for the love of the game and help them internalize the results by using their experience to become a better person.
If it is not about winning then why do we even keep score? We need the pressure of those situations to help mold and shape our character. Just like a blacksmith must forge his metals in the fire to create the desired shape, so must we be forged through the competitive environments we experience. However, the key is to have blacksmiths (parents and coaches) who are forging strengths of character in our children rather than simply teaching them that winning on the scoreboard will make them happy and take all their problems away.
Responding to a Loss
It is also important to remember the competitive pressure should stop when the final buzzer sounds. A coach can use an after action review with his team in the locker room to analyze what went well, what areas need improvement, and what actions steps they need to take in the future. This time in the locker room is a time for teaching, not for criticizing or blaming.
At the same time, the ride home is an opportunity for parents to show their unconditional love for their children. Even, if there was an issue which needs addressing, like poor body language, it could often wait until the next day. I once had a player tell me that even when he played well he usually did not want to talk about the game immediately afterward with his parents. Creating an environment where kids are allowed to decompress after a game can be a key to a successful parent-child relationship.
NBA basketball coach Brad Stevens once said how we handle our biggest defeats and our biggest wins are both true signs of our character. This principle is maybe one of the greatest lessons I have tried to embrace throughout my coaching journey. I was always pretty good at staying humble when we won. I enjoyed the wins, but I attempted not to let them make me feel like I was on top of a mountain. However, I often allowed the losses to affect my mood, and sometimes it changed how I treated other people, especially my family and my players.
As I began to become more aware of this and was intentional about my mood after losses, I started to feel like I was doing something wrong if I was not depressed after we lost. I believe society has conditioned us to think we should mope around and pout if we lose because it shows how much we want to win. It is okay to be disappointed, especially if we gave our best effort and prepared as best we could, but it cannot affect our attitude or how we treat people. If we have the perspective to always learn and grow and move forward in a positive direction, then doesn’t that show how much we want to win?
Sometimes people do not work very hard and prepare, but then are upset by the results. Sometimes people work hard when they think they have a chance to win on the scoreboard, but after things do not go their way, they stop putting forth their best effort. How do we expect to bounce back from a loss or get out of a slump if we let the results dictate our level of energy and commitment?
This situation is the reason legendary basketball coach John Wooden did not like his players to play with emotion, but preferred for them to play with an increasing level of intensity. If we play with emotion the highs will feel great, and the lows will feel terrible, and we will be on an emotional rollercoaster.
So how do we stay off that rollercoaster? Play for the love of the game, don’t put our value in outcomes and focus on the process of improving a little bit each day without comparing ourselves to others so we can enjoy the journey!
 Brown, Les. Live Your Dreams. HarperCollins, 1992, p. 70.
 Pizza, Angelo and De Haven, Carter (Producers) & Anspaugh, David (Director). Hoosiers. Orion, 1986.
 King, Jay. “Boston Celtics news 2013: Brad Stevens discusses how he'll handle losses, why he's so reserved after big wins.” http://www.masslive.com/celtics/index.ssf/2013/09/how_does_brad_stevens_handle_l.html (accessed October 6, 2017).
 Wooden, Wooden on Leadership, p. 107-114.
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