Losing With Dignity
A lesson in leadership to help coaches guide their players
A universal truth in the world of coaching is that nobody like to lose. But how coaches handle losing says a lot about their program, their culture and their core philosophy.
You hear the clichés all the time, but it’s not rare to see upsets in sports. We have all been on the winning and losing side, and we’ve all repeated phrases like, “They were the better team today.” The fact is, epic wins and epic loses happen in the same game.When the University of Virginia men’s basketball team lost to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the NCAA Tournament — the first No. 1 seed to fall in the opening round — the historic win and historic loss were one in the same. When Virginia coach Tony Bennett took to the postgame press conference, he was magnificent in the manner and tone in which he handled the disappointment. His comments were the template for how coaches at any level should handle the burden of such a significant loss.
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If you look at how Bennett handled himself as a leader, coach and teacher, you see that the values and core beliefs of his coaching shined through. We can all learn a lot from Bennett. Here’s a blueprint for how to teach our athletes about life, sports, winning and losing.
1. Acknowledge your opponents and give credit.
This sounds simple, but it’s not uncommon to hear coaches make excuses for their play — “the officiating was terrible,” “we were shorthanded due to injuries.” If we make excuses rather than crediting our opponents, we teach athletes to deflect responsibility for the loss. We teach them that you don’t have to take ownership of your own performance.
As coaches, we’re charged with teaching life lessons. One of those core lessons and skills is to teach humility and dignity when times are tough.
2. Maintain proper perspective.
In a loss where a favored team doesn’t rise to the occasion, it’s not a representation of the team or individual players. Bennett was crystal clear in his message to the team.
“This is life,” he said. “It can’t define you. You enjoyed the good times, and you have to be able to take the bad times. When you step into the arena … the consequences can be historic losses, tough losses, great wins and you have to deal with it. And that’s the job.”
Our ability to clarify the values of winning and losing is vital to the social, mental and emotional development of our athletes. We have to be able to frame the message of how competition challenges us. Not just in our physical and mental preparation, but also how it challenges us emotionally.
3. Be dignified in your body language and presence.
Body language is everything as a leader. Our athletes look to coaches to be the stability and foundation of the program. How we carry and present ourselves speaks louder than our words ever will.
If we have an athlete who jogs at 75% to our huddle, slouches on the bench, or projects frustration and disappointment, we lose faith in their ability to be invested. We are no different in the eyes of our athletes. If we allow frustration, disappointment or a bad attitude to be visible to our players, we allow them to adopt the same demeanor. We have all done it from time to time — argued with officials, allowed a play or call to direct us into a mindset of blame. It’s natural to feel that way. However, as a leader, we have to be cognizant that our approach toward adversity guides our players in how they develop emotional and mental resiliency.
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I know this all too well as a player and coach. As an athlete, I was co-captain of my varsity basketball team that lost in the state championships. We were the No. 1 seed and lost in the finals to a fifth-seeded team, a school we defeated by 24 points during the regular season. Losing with dignity is hard as a player, but my coaches never allowed us to make any excuses for the loss. They modeled integrity and sportsmanship in the loss and insisted that we lose with grace and dignity. I carried those values with me as a collegiate athlete, and I continue to do so today.
I have been fortunate to coach in two soccer state semifinals, losing each by a single goal. As hard as my team worked during those seasons and as great it was to win, those losses taught me how to lead. They taught me to be more aware of how we frame winning and losing for our athletes.
From time to time, we all get frustrated and want to deflect a lack of success away from ourselves. However, we can never allow it to rise to the top and be a distraction from the real reason we might be on the losing end. Credit an opponent for beating you, even if you know you could have done better. Keep it in perspective, and maintain a healthy philosophy about competition. Above all, maintain your integrity and lose with dignity.
Joshua Hils, M.Ed., is the head girls soccer coach at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy in New Hampshire and has 20 years of high school coaching experience. He also develops coaches through his coaching education and development program, Picking Up the Whistle.