On Losing

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My basketball team got beat by 31 points last night and I am still alive.  It was a long, cold night, we got the bus back at nearly 10 o’clock and we committed 15 fouls in the first quarter, which must be a record in the state of Georgia.   I have a vague fear that people watching might think that the team is losing because I am a bad coach and I have no clue what I am doing.  I worry that there is something I am missing, some vital piece of information that could allow me to dramatically change our fortunes.  Losing games has the painful side effect of bringing to the surface dormant feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. These are hard things to avoid.

In spite of this, I really don’t feel that bad about the whole thing.  Losing is not something I am proud of, but it is something that I have become less afraid of over the years.  What I am about to say is heretical in the world of coaching and probably will elicit eye rolls from folks who worship at the altar of the “Church of the Winner”, but losing is really not all that bad.  I’ll even go one step further into the nether reaches of coaching apostasy…I had a great time at the game last night and my players did as well!  How is this possible?

A good deal of the culture of sport is built on the mistaken belief that winning actually means something beyond the basic fact that Team A scored more points that Team B.  I have often been told that character wins basketball games.  This is absurd.  If a team has character and scores less points than the other team, they still lose.  You could put together a team of sociopathic axe murderers and put them against a team of people who have run into burning buildings to save the lives of children and if the axe murderers put the ball in the basket more often they are going to win.

I have been told that winning is a product of hard work and determination.  Another patently ridiculous statement.  I have coached players who were extraordinarily committed to every aspect of the game but cannot keep up with disinterested natural athletes.  Working hard may make you a better player but it can only close the gap so much.  Hard work and determination are great character traits to have and will serve one well in life, but once the players step on the court it can only carry you so far. In order to get at the heart of how insane this idea is imagine for a second two basketball teams.  One is a highly talented team who wins many of their games, some by embarrassingly high totals, and another is a minimally talented team who gets beat soundly on a regular basis.

Which team really shows the most determination?  The team that often loses has to deal with the hopelessness and sadness that losing can create.  Sometimes people are angry with them because they have not performed well.  Sometimes they feel embarrassed or ashamed because they lost.  Yet they keep coming back game after game. During the 2007-08 season, the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders men’s basketball team went 0-29.  Can you imagine how much determination they must have shown to keep playing and working hard day after day?

The all time weakest sports cliché is the one where people think winning is a product of discipline.  Bobby Bowden perfectly summed up the problem with this statement when he was asked if discipline was the key to winning. He responded by saying “if it was, Army and Navy would be playing for the National Championship every year.”

Maybe all of these positive attributes can be put together to create a culture of winning. They may help you, but when your team walks out of the tunnel and the other team has a significant advantage “height, speed, natural strength, etc.” there is only so much you can do.  We don’t remember the story of David and Goliath because it is a regular occurrence; we remember it because it is the exception to the rule.

I once heard a football coach asked what he liked most about his star running back.  He replied, “The kid makes me look like I know what I am doing.”  I have stolen that quote and used it repeatedly over the years because I believe that it is instructive in understanding what I actually do for four months of the year.  I try to teach skills and technique, but some players are able to get it and some are not.  The great players often pick things up after a few repetitions and the ones with less ability may spend their entire time in high school working on one skill that another player could pick up in a half hour.  Those with a set of attributes that gear them for success in the game will make them me seem as if I am a brilliant coach, those without the winning attributes will make me appear like I don’t have a clue about how to teach the game.  If winning is the goal and my self worth as a coach is derived from it how on earth can I feel anything but anger towards those who don’t perform well and favor those who are successful?

Last night, while we were driving down to the game the girls on my team had a blast.  They sang along to pop songs on the radio, they told hysterical jokes, wore funny hats and laughed uncontrollably.  We showed up at the gym and were baffled by the bizarre conditions.  The locker room looked vaguely like something out of the Saw films.  The gym had no heat in it and it was a balmy 40 degrees at game time.  We got on the court and the other team scored the first 17 points.  None of the players put their head down and no one was angry.  Our center hit a jump shot to get us on the board and the bench went crazy.  My point guard picked up her third foul in the first quarter because of a bit of ill-advised gambling on my part.  She came over to ask me to keep her in the game and I informed her that she had three fouls. She looked over at me and said “But I get five!”

We laughed about that one the whole bus ride home.  Another girl on the team asked me if she could coach the next game.  I told her she couldn’t and she looked at me without a hint of irony and said, “Coach…let me shine!”  Great line!  We laughed about that for a while, too.

We stopped for gas and snacks and two of the girls bought matching day-glow hats that made them look like a pack of tropical Skittles.  Sitting on the bench with me was a young man who is the assistant coach of the boy’s team. He played for me when he was in high school and he loves the game so much he has decided to try coaching. He is a great person and is  a tremendous coach one day.  I have been lucky enough to get a chance to coach with several athletes that played for me in high school and it is an unbelievably wonderful feeling.

I guess I should have been acting dejected after the game.  Smiling while your team is losing seems like an act of betrayal, but it isn’t.  It is an act of love for the game and your players and an act appreciation and reverence for how much fun a game can be. I have never been one for oft repeated bromides about how winning isn’t what’s important, but I have to wonder what type of person I would be to be surrounded by all that joy and life while sadly brooding about not winning a basketball game.  Think of what I could have missed.

Vince Lombardi once said, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” Well Vince, I don’t want to teach my players to be good losers, I want them to be the best losers that ever stepped on the court.  I want them to experience elation every time they play basketball.  I want them to look back with an incurable fondness and veneration for every moment of the season.  If I could choose one thing to teach every player who puts on a uniform it’s to love the game without reserve and to play like that everyday.

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  1. #1 by Kim Papastavridis on December 4, 2010 - 4:55 AM

    Love it!!! Ditto for academic superstars who effortlessly sail through and self-teach. Thanks for not altering the proverbial scantrons to make yourself look good.

  2. #2 by Keith Spillett on December 4, 2010 - 8:25 AM

    Thanks Kim!

  3. #3 by Jim Wheeler on December 4, 2010 - 11:42 AM

    Keith,

    Yours is the best sports essay I have ever read. I feel that you have penetrated the heart of the matter. Should be required reading, (especially in Cleveland lately).

    I have often thought of sports as an analogy for war or tribal competition, and your excellent essay supports it. Tribes may have evolved for the purpose of collective defense by organizing the disparate talents of its members into an optimum whole, a definite survival meme. Competition begets social cohesion, not to mention lots of fun when done right.

    You should submit this to Reader’s Digest. The world would benefit. Thanks.

    Jim

  4. #4 by Jim Wheeler on December 4, 2010 - 11:45 AM

    P.S. As a Naval Academy graduate I really liked the Bobby Bowden quote. It is right on the money. The next Army/Navy game is December 11. Go Navy!!!

  5. #5 by Keith Spillett on December 4, 2010 - 12:02 PM

    Thanks Jim! I really appreciate your words and your time reading the essay. They mean a great deal to me.

    “Competition begets social cohesion”…You really nailed it there. I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. It is an aspect of competition that people often forget about, but it’s what makes it worthwhile to keep the scoreboard on. I would like to put that on our team tee-shirts, but I think the kids wouldn’t get it. It would be fun to send it over to Reader’s Digest, but I think they have closed up shop. I’d really like to see if I can get Wikileaks to publish it.

    Navy is a fun team to watch (especially when they play Notre Dame lately). Have to love that triple option!

    Keith

  6. #6 by Jim on December 4, 2010 - 2:02 PM

    Jim One, my fellow blogger at ‘Still Skeptical After All These Years’ – an EXCELLENT blog – recommended this sports essay as “the best-ever essay on sports”. It is beautiful.

    I have been incompatible (even when winning) with our ‘winning is everything’ culture. Your words made me cry.

    Jim too

  7. #7 by Keith Spillett on December 4, 2010 - 2:06 PM

    Thank you so much for your comment, Jim. I am genuinely honored that my words made an impact on you.

  8. #8 by Joe Linker on December 6, 2010 - 1:19 PM

    This is good. There is love for the sport, and there is love for winning, not necessarily the same thing. When love for winning comes to dominate, we start to see all sorts of acculturation and adulteration of the sport. Have you seen the movie “Finding Forrester”? It’s Hollywood, but still hits on a number of truths in a convincing way. The main character, Jamal, does not let his love of the game, which includes his loyalty to where he comes from, be dominated by anyone’s need to win at all costs. That he comes back from the loss a more complete character is what’s important.

  9. #9 by Keith Spillett on December 6, 2010 - 1:41 PM

    I have to go back and re-watch that film. I remember thinking it was very good but the only part I remember well from it was that bizarre scene where he yells at him for not typing loud enough and tells him that he’s “the man now, dawg.” A strange moment in Sean’s career for sure. I am looking forward to rediscovering that film soon.

    “That he comes back from the loss a more complete character is what’s important.” That’s the truth of it.

  10. #10 by Awakening Tempest on December 8, 2010 - 10:37 PM

    Nice post and very honest indeed. I can relate to this but with somewhat a happy ending for us. Here in the UK, as well as football (soccer), cricket is another big sport. I have been playing cricket for my club now for 4 years. The first 2 years that I played we were some where at the bottom of the league and had never won a championship for a decade or so. But something changed in the last two years. Two years ago, my team won the Championship where we only lost 1 game and won every other game. Because we tasted victory we got addicted to it and won the championship again last year. In other words we won the league championship twice in a row in the last two years. Were addicted to winning every match as if it is the last match deciding match and guess what it works.

    We (club board members and senior players) eradicated negative people who were bad for the game both socially and emotionally irrelevant of how good they were at the sport. This led to immediate improvement to the game hence a successful outcome.

    Winning each and every game is important, it sends fear down the opposition days before they actually meet you on the pitch, it sends a strong message to everyone. It brings together team achievement as opposed to individual claiming superstar status.

  11. #11 by G-LO on January 4, 2011 - 9:55 AM

    Yo Keith!

    Loved the article! This applies to all aspects of life, not just sports. At the end of the day, life is about finding pleasure in what you do and doing it as best as you can.

    Cheers!
    G-LO

    • #12 by Keith Spillett on January 4, 2011 - 7:07 PM

      Thanks dude. You said it perfectly!

      -Keith

      • #13 by G-LO on January 4, 2011 - 9:59 PM

        You’re very welcome!

  1. Thrill and Agony | Still Skeptical After All These Years

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