Teach Winning Through Losing

This is the first post in a two-part series on teaching players about winning through losing.

If you can’t accept losing, you can’t win.  — Vince Lombardi

This spring, I survived my first youth league draft. I was cautioned against drafting a young, inexperienced team. “You’ll lose a lot of games, and the kids won’t deal with it well.” I didn’t fear the first part, and I didn’t believe the second part, so I went against conventional wisdom and drafted the youngest, most inexperienced team in the league. And I got exactly the team I wanted.

I entered the draft with a few stated goals and guiding ethics. I even wrote them down, figuring I’d rely on them throughout the season — first when starting to form a team culture that I hoped would bond my players and their parents, and later when enduring the failure we would inevitably encounter. The list looked something like this:

  • Draft good listeners
  • Draft kids who want to improve
  • Draft kids who will most benefit from my emphasis on process over outcome
  • Treat the season like a competitive, instructional camp
  • Improve more than any other team in the league
  • Being overmatched is healthy and challenging
  • Kids who fail will be better served long term
  • Strive to have other coaches notice my players for their composure

Not on my list:

  • Draft the best players to win now

So, we started the season with nothing to lose . . . except the games, of course, which we did. And our 0-6 start surprised no one.

“I guess your young kids weren’t ready, Coach. I guess they should’ve repeated a year at the lower level.”

I wasn’t surprised by these views, but I didn’t hold them in common. Why should they have played down another year? Simply so they could experience unbridled success? It took courage to break free from their comfort zone; they certainly had no plans to return. They were too invested. Failure, I noticed, was doing wonders for these kids. They were finally experiencing the way the game — and life — really works. And more importantly, they were learning that it’s not so bad after all. I couldn’t help but wonder what developmental strides the older, less challenged players in the league were making.

My players’ success was measured in their ability to navigate failure. That was instilled through our team values on day one and consistently honored and modeled by my coaches and parents. Our players were expected to want to win, but they were taught to never worry about it. Focus on process, on correctness, on maintaining a competitive mindset — and trust that desirable outcomes will occur in the long run. Along the way, expect some mixture of failure and success — each one plays a central role in sports. Let’s learn to deal with both of them so that neither one gets in our way.

As you might expect, there were a few teary outbursts seen on the field during our 0-6 start, but never once from any of my players. Instead, ironically, it would be a player on the winning team, experiencing only a passing cloud of adversity, who at times would struggle to hold it together. The curse of success, I thought; the “discomfort with discomfort”, to borrow a phrase from Harvard child psychologist Dan Kindlon.

My players — by design — are taught how to be comfortable with occasional discomfort. We even practice it. Discomfort, in most sports and in baseball in particular, comes in various forms: physical mistakes, superior competition, unlucky bounces, blown calls, bad fields, inclement weather. And yes, losses, too. Removing or avoiding too many of these realities might inflate a player’s success rate in the short run but it hinders the longer run process of developing into a true winner. So I don’t remove them. I instead confront them, interpret them, and put them in their proper perspective.

In one sense, our season ended as it started: with a loss. But we were not the same team we were three months earlier. We opened the season getting wholly dominated in a 12-1 no-hit defeat. We ended the season losing in a semi-final playoff game to the eventual champion — a close, low scoring game that was played hard to the final out. Once we started to win, we kept winning, and finished with a respectable, middle-of-the-pack, 8-10 record: an unremarkable final record still, but a season that was anything but.

Post-game, I stood for one last time inside a ring of players and an outer ring of parents. I spoke, they listened. I was reminded once again that I drafted good listeners who wanted to improve, and they did.

I briefly recapped our values and how proud I was of their ability to honor them all season long. I told them that their performance that day proved that being overmatched and failing early served them well in the long run. And I told them how every other coach in the league made a point of praising my team for their composure all season long.

For the very first time all year, I detected some watery eyes on 12 otherwise emotionally resilient young faces. No teary outbursts just real passion, real investment. They experienced defeat, and some success, but they were not defeated. At that moment, they were appropriately disappointed that they lost, but they were primarily saddened by the realization that our season together had come to an end.

I was right all along, I thought.  I got exactly the team I wanted.

How do you teach your players about winning through losing?  Look for tomorrow’s post where I will share four coaching ideas from our season.

Bruce Reed is a youth sports coach, writer, educator, and father of two. He has coached high school and Little League baseball, youth soccer, basketball, and football and is currently the regional director of Compass Prep.

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