Few words in the English language carry a more negative implication than loser. In athletics, it is a moniker that no player or coach wants hung around their neck or figuratively stamped on their forehead. “We lost” is seldom uttered with enthusiasm or pride.
The winner and loser segregation is one of the great debates of the sports world. On any given day, in any sports model, only fifty percent of the participants can win. It is theoretically the flip of a coin. Regardless of the actual margin of victory, close as straight blade shave or as wide as our countries current political divide each team must accept the appropriate label. Each will be expected to exhibit good sportsmanship in the face of the result.
One of Vince Lombardi’s most famous quotes is, “show me a good loser and I will show you a loser.” Unfortunately, his most famous quotes like, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” were edited. Most are unfamiliar with the second half of his loser quote that reads, “But show me a gracious loser and I’ll show you someone who will always be a winner.” That addition drastically changes the meaning of what he was trying to say.
In their abbreviated versions Lombardi would seem to have been preaching a win at all costs philosophy. That is exactly the legacy attached to Lombardi and the principle that I adhered to growing up. Losing was unacceptable and cause for great despair. Whether I was playing football in the backyard or watching the Packers on television, any loss was a devastating occasion.
Interestingly, Lombardi regretted his “winning isn’t everything” quote late in his life proclaiming, “I wish I'd never said the thing...I meant the effort.”
What exactly does constitute a “good loser” because nobody inherently wants to be good at losing? I think we can all agree that the desire to win is universal among sports participants. Once we decide to turn on the scoreboard winning becomes the outcome we prefer. Nobody outside of the Washington Generals works on ways to lose. It isn’t the process of losing it is the reaction to losing that Lombardi was after.
Regrettably the media has always focused on the stunning meltdowns of coaches and players consumed by the loss at hand. The poised post-game press conference, like a swift Amtrak train knifing through the countryside isn’t nearly as engaging as the train wreck we can’t look away from. Bobby Knight, Woody Hayes, John Tortorella, Billy Martin and a horde of others made losing games an art form. Chair throwing, dirt kicking, face mask grabbing, profanity filled tirades entertained and sometimes shocked us. Losing awakened a beast inside each of them that they could not contain.
Perhaps it isn’t the losing as much as it is the winning and the powerful spell it can cast over us. For some it becomes as addictive as a drug and losing sends us into a painful withdrawal.
During my uneventful days as a player I smashed more sticks, wooden mind you, over the crossbar than I care to count. The last time I broke a stick, over the bench in the lockeroom, the end flew across the room and nearly hit one of my teammates in the head. I never broke another one.
As a young coach with virtually no training I expected victory and loathed defeat. After each game there would be no need to check the scoreboard, my emotions spoke volumes, especially in defeat. I still have an autographed garbage can from my players in Spooner, a tribute to my trash can kicking episode after a loss in Waupaca. For too many years my wife told my players that if they had to spend the next twenty-four hours with me after a loss—they would never lose a game.
Pathetically I wore those fits over losing as the badge of a coach that cared. I was convinced that was how coaches who really care, that are serious about what they do, act in the face of defeat. I cannot bear to even attempt to calculate the hours I have spent brooding over a loss. Time, I realize now, with my family, that I can never get back.
John Wooden said, “An opponent should never know if you won or lost by your actions.”
Too often losing sent me into a post-game analysis that I often regretted the next day. Now I keep it brief, go home, reflect, watch video and then talk about it the next day. The emotions that losing stirs often translates into a litany of over-reactions and exaggerations.
The perception of winning and losing today is much different. After years of trying to blur the lines between the two there has finally been a trend to extol the virtues of losing. Failure it seems is a necessary piece of everyone’s life puzzle.
I have come to understand that a good loser is simply someone with the proper perspective. One who realizes that losing is a character building experience that is essential to future victories. As a coach losing causes us to reflect, analyze and work harder to achieve a different result. Winning too often is about patting ourselves on the back. Winning brings happiness, losing brings wisdom
When I focused only on the outcome of a game, losing set off an immature and regrettable reaction. Once I shifted my attention to the process and the preparation, which I have some control over, and away from the result which I ultimately don’t control, I not only became a better coach, but I began enjoying it more than ever before. Torturing myself and my family after a loss was a complete waste of time and energy. Brooding won’t change the result and will do nothing to help you prepare for the next challenge. All of this applies not just to coaches, but to players and parents too. We are all better served if we learn to leave the game at the rink.
When we do that, everybody wins.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org