Wednesday January 20 2021
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Winning and Losing Gracefully

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In early May at Slippery Rock University, a season’s worth of lessons about winning and losing—perhaps even a short lifetime of such lessons—was playing out on the basketball court.

As part of an Amateur Athletic Union tournament, an under-16 boys team was about to clinch the tournament championship and the corresponding trip to the national tourney in Indianapolis. The team led by more than 10 points with just over a minute to go, and the players were ready to celebrate.

As the game wound down, the players became more and more excited. At the buzzer, they exchanged high fives and even some hugs.

Amazingly, though, their coach did all he could to temper the celebration and deliver a message.

“I told them the game’s not over until they shake hands with the other team,” says coach Eric King. “We had been on the other end of games when a team was up on us by a comfortable margin and started celebrating. Some teams just made their way off the court and never even bothered to shake hands.

“Our guys knew what that felt like. I wanted them to finish the game, which meant congratulating the other team for its effort, before they really started celebrating.”

Subduing the celebration of a victory that secured a berth in the national tournament for 16-year-old players might sound excessive, but King believes winning and losing have a value only if kept in perspective.

He also believes athletes, from the youngest and most inexperienced participants in any sport to a talented group of AAU basketball players, should learn how to win and lose gracefully.

“There are lessons to be learned and ways for physical and skill improvement any time someone practices or competes,¨ says King, who also operates Big Eekay Sports, a non-profit organization that conducts youth basketball tournaments from Pennsylvania to Michigan. In that role, King deals more with parents’ expectations (and opinions) and he gets a glimpse at winning and losing beyond his team. “When you talk about winning and losing, you usually end up talking about the parents. Too many people fixate on the outcome and the kids themselves just want to compete.¨

Results from one national survey of 10- to 18-year-old athletes found just where winning fits. When asked whether they participated in sports “to win,¨ securing a victory actually failed to make the top-10 list of reason for girls in the survey. For boys, it ranked seventh.

In fact, many respondents to the survey suggested that a decreased emphasis on winning would make sports more enjoyable.

“Younger athletes are more interested in the fairness of their games, while older athletes become more concerned about winning,¨ says Michael Clark of Michigan State University, which hosts the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports in its College of Education. “But even then, many young athletes say that they would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench on a winning team.”

Coaches, parents and even youth sports organizers regularly cite the valuable lessons that can emerge form winning and losing. They argue that positive or negative results teach athletes to deal with adversity and learn life lessons about adaptability and overcoming challenges.

They also argue that dealing with a loss helps build character.

Still, a nationally respected ethics expert who conducts programs about building character does not list winning or losing among the key components in the development of character.

According to Michael Josephson of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics and its “Character Counts¨ program, the “Six Pillars of Character¨ include: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Although Josephson counts himself as a sports fan and enjoys his children’s activities, he makes no mention of winning and losing in his “Pillars” for a reason.

“It’s not the result of one game or a several games that shapes a person,¨ Josephson says. “Numerous factors impact how a person acts and who they become. Winning and losing have a role, but to imply that a person needs to win in sports to know how to be a ‘winner’ or that a person on losing teams may not have a ‘winning attitude’ just misses the point in so many ways.”

While Josephson and others seemingly minimize winning and losing, they also emphasize the importance of things many people may associate with victory—celebrating success and displaying emotion. Without passion for participation and an ability to show excitement, they argue that sports become less meaningful.

Achieving a balance—allowing room for passion without an overwhelming emphasis on the outcome—remains the biggest challenge for youth sports. Making that happen may ultimately rely on the ability of coaches to treat their athletes individually, working for improvement rather than overall victory.

That’s usually much easier to preach than to practice, though.

“Scoring points, lowering times or improving distances are relevant, because they imply something about the effort made,¨ Clark says. “Equally important are knowing what defense the opponents are using, being able to ‘stick’ a dismount or understanding when to ice the puck.

“Making a kick turn, using a scissors takedown or shooting a left-handed lay-up also are expressions of effort and, therefore, success.”

While individual sports allow such a focus on development and incremental success, winning or losing, and how much to emphasize outcome as well as how much to celebrate a victory or how long to linger on a loss, usually matter most in team sports.

Should a recreational soccer game victory be cause for celebration? If so, how much?

While some league administrators, coaches and parents might justifiably want to keep winning and losing in some sort of perspective, that approach also prompts concerns about the value of the endeavor. After all, if some tangible measure of success is not at least acknowledged, does sports participation matter?

“Our league’s not travel soccer and it’s just twice a week, but you want to do your best. You want to win if you can,” says Sara Young, who participates in a girls’ in-house league sanctioned by Pa. West Soccer. “If we win, it’s exciting. If we lose, and we’re mad we lost or we lost to a team that’s better than us or had people we don’t like on it, we can just shake it off because it’s only recreational soccer. It’s not the end of the world.”

Almost without fail, the participants know best about winning and losing, and what the opposite outcomes mean.

While adults fret about how much to let their children celebrate after a victory or whether to offer a hug or ice cream in the wake of a loss, the young athletes themselves know a winning and losing simply means the end of a game. They already know the lesson—there will be another day and another game.

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