What’s Your Plan For Losing?

Well, I guess a better way for stating it would be, “What’s your plan for dealing with losing?”.  

Winning is never a certainty.  For every Goliath on the field or court, there is always a David out there slinging stones.  The day will come when the stone finds its target. 

For some, winning is much less certain.  Anyone that believes winning is easy hasn’t played long enough or faced enough adverse conditions.  If you stay in the game long enough, one thing is for certain, you are going to lose.  Some more than others, but no one escapes.

Everyone in a competitive situation is going to devote time and effort toward winning.  However, in this entry of the Coach With A Purpose blog, I would like to suggest having a formula for dealing with losing.  And the more competitive you are, the better your plan should be.  If you don’t, you risk putting your emotional, mental, and physical health at risk as well as your relationships.

This is not a theory, it’s a testimony.

From 2011-2013, our boys basketball teams at White Oak compiled a 104-6 overall record, we won 2 Class 2A State Championships, won 49 consecutive games, and 13 consecutive playoff games.  We were blessed to win….a lot.

From 2014-2016 (my last 3 yrs as Head Basketball Coach), we still had very competitive teams, made the playoffs each year, and advanced to the Area round 2 of the 3 years.  However, emotionally and physically, I could feel each season starting to take a toll on me.  I attribute some of this to my coaching style.  It was very physically demanding in practice and games.  Some I attribute to the amount of time I put into our program over 25 years, especially outside of the season.  But I also believe, over a 3 year span, that some of it was due to becoming accustomed to winning at a very high level.  A much higher level than was the norm for our basketball teams and, to a degree, I don’t think I handled losing as well my last 3 years.  I lost some of my perspective and, consequently, coaching became much more stressful.

I never slept much after games…wins or losses.  Still don’t now that I coach Junior High.  Without a doubt, my hatred for losing was what drove my desire to win.  That’s just how I’m wired.  It is my greatest strength.  In some ways, I believe I let it become my greatest weakness.

So, as I share with you what I believe are 5 ways to help deal with losing, please understand this was (and is) never easy for me to do.  I’m speaking as much to myself as anyone.    

  1. Preparation

This was always my favorite part of being a head coach.  I believe this was one of my strengths as a coach and was driven by my competitiveness.  Doing all that I could to have our teams prepared to maximize our potential extended from 3rd grade Little Dribblers throughout every facet and level of our program.  I loved it and felt it was the only way we would succeed at White Oak.

One of the things I was most proud of with our program was that I felt we rarely lost to teams that were less talented than us.  We beat the teams we were supposed to beat the vast majority of the time and competed against most others.

As much as I believe this helped us win, I also believe it helped me to handle losing.  Though investment increases the pain of defeat, I usually had a peaceful feeling of knowing we had done everything we could possibly do to give ourselves the best chance to win.  Sometimes the other team is just better or plays better that night.  When you have the solace of knowing your team was prepared, it is much more likely that you didn’t lose, you got beat.  Getting beat rests better at night than losing.

                2. People

I once heard the great Dick Bennett say in reference to culture, “As a coach, you have to surround yourself with people you can lose with.” To me, that’s a very unique (and truthful) way to look at culture.  

When we have standards for our program and we surround ourselves with people who share those standards, are willing to sacrifice for those standards, and, ultimately, win or lose with those standards, I believe we are on our way toward developing a Championship Culture.  

Unfortunately, this could mean that players (or anyone else associated with your program) who consistently refuse to meet these standards must be eliminated.  For this reason, I never used “family” in reference to people currently in our program.  We were a team or program not a family.  In my mind, you can’t be eliminated from the family.  You can be eliminated from the team or program.

I only referenced “family” once players graduated from our program.  At this point, they became members of our basketball family and, as the leader of that family, I did my best to give them my unconditional loyalty.  To the best of my ability, I would do all I could to help (not enable) them in any way possible.  At this point, they had met at least the minimum standard for our program and I believe this meant something.

Along those same lines, dealing with losing is much more tolerable when it involves people with common goals and standards.  They aren’t all going to be pleasant or exactly like we want them to be but if we will hold them to a standard and we have common goals, they will usually conform their behavior.

Too many times as coaches, we allow talent to tempt us to lower the standard and I believe, more times than not, this is a recipe for demise. To me, there is a lot of truth in the saying,  “Lower the bar and you lose the winners.  Raise the bar and you lose the losers.”  

Now, does this mean remove every kid that doesn’t measure up?  Of course not!  It does mean, however, that players understand two things.  First, there must be growth.  It might be minimal at times but it must be present.  Secondly, there is a line.  You don’t get to consistently tread water or go backwards without consequences.

In our program, most of the kids who weren’t going to meet our standards eliminated themselves before they became varsity players.  I rarely had to remove a player.  Did this cost us some talent?  Without a doubt.  Did it hurt our program?  Maybe at times because no situation is perfect but over the long haul upholding our standards was never a detriment to our success.

When the culture of your team or program is to the point that defeat is shared pain, then losing can be handled in a much more constructive way.  Everyone loses from time to time but it’s much less miserable when you don’t have to share it with losers.

                     3. Prayer

For me, my faith has always been my rock.  Prior to every game I was going to seek to spend time in solitude with my God.  On road games, I would pray as I sat at my desk in my office before we departed.  On home games, at some point I would venture up to my classroom (the officials dressed in my office) and spend time with the Lord.

My prayer was never for victory.  Sometimes there were specifics about players who I knew were struggling in different areas of their lives.  I would pray that we would play in a way that was pleasing to God, that He would protect us and the other team, and finally, that He would help me deal with whatever result we got that evening in a positive way.

Over the years, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it has been my faith and prayer life that has helped me the most when it came to dealing with the 242 times my team met defeat.  The prayers of my mom and many others helped as well!

                      4. Purpose

In coaching, it’s easy to say, “It’s not about wins and losses.  It’s about making a difference in the lives of our players.”  Many (hopefully most) coaches subscribe to this philosophy but there are places in high school coaching that losing will eliminate your opportunity to make a difference at that school!  Let’s not be naive.  Winning is a factor in job security for many coaches.  

With this being understood, I believe few professions offer the opportunity to make a lasting positive impression on young lives than coaching.  To me, basketball (or whatever sport I was coaching) was just my platform for making that difference and as driven as I was to win, I wanted to do it in the right way and within the grand scheme of having a higher purpose.  

I believe one of the best ways to do this is to come up with a method or constant reminder to keep the game within the priorities of your life.  For me, that reminder was not keeping up with my career record.  Now, I knew I was not looking to ever leave White Oak.  It was my home and my “dream” job so I knew I would not need this information for applications or such.  Whenever I would get the yearly newspaper information form to fill out, have someone ask me, or just wonder what my overall record was, I would immediately be reminded of my purpose.  It was a little thing but very effective for me.

Along those same lines, my prayer life and quiet times each morning were also useful in keeping me focused on where my priorities needed to be. Ultimately, there will only be one scoreboard in my coaching career that counts and that’s the one that is measured much more in “Thank you, coach” than wins and losses.  

Purpose leads to peace and peace is our ally in a profession that can be as stressful as coaching.  Losing may still cost us some sleep but it only takes our peace if we allow it to.  We all have to find ways to keep our purpose at the forefront of our lives and when we do, peace will be there as well.         

                             5. Perspective

The final piece to the puzzle is keeping things in perspective.  Few things are more valuable to someone in a competitive leadership position than perspective and self awareness.  Being able to objectively assess our situation, put a plan in place, and then work our way through the process of executing this plan is crucial but we must also factor in the level of difficulty.

My first season as the head coach at White Oak, we had graduated 10 of 11 players from the previous season.  The JV I had coached was fair and so was the freshman team.  After being hired, the coach I was replacing (Glynn Hughes, who was my JV coach at WO and the guy who made out the schedule) told me point blank, “You may not win a game next year”.  My dream job had just been put into perspective! 

We went 9-19 my first year, didn’t have a winning record until my 3rd season, and didn’t make the playoffs until my 7th season so I quickly learned not to accept losing but I would have to learn to deal with it or lose my sanity.

To me, won/loss records (especially non-district) never tell the complete story.  All jobs and situations are different.  Winning is definitely never easy but it’s much more likely in some situations than others.  As the saying goes, “Comparison is the thief of joy” so resist the temptation to either be envious of others or be too hard on yourself.  High expectations are good but must be kept in perspective.  We all have people who will make our jobs harder, don’t let that person be you. 

In conclusion, losing is as much a part of life as winning and probably moreso.  I never wanted to lose (who does) but I always tried to go into any game knowing it was a possibility and that for my sake and my team’s sake I needed to have a plan to deal with it if it happened.  I encourage you to have one as well…then do all you can to not have to use it.

Thanks for reading and Coach With A Purpose!