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Learning To Lose

Updated: Mar 3

My favorite game when I was a young child was Candy Land. I’m told that I had a habit of cheating to ensure my gingerbread man was the first to reach the Candy Castle. However, at some point my family stopped letting me cheat, and for that I am grateful because that’s likely when I first learned to lose.

Many years later, after suffering a different kind of defeat, I read the words, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” The Japanese proverb reminded me of the value of persevering, finding joy even when faced with adversity, and learning to think of losing as an opportunity to improve.

Get in the Game

I’ve had a surprising number of students share with me that they don’t know how to lose. One young man said, “I’ve always put my energy toward things I’m good at and shied away from things I’m not.” When he met an obstacle, he would quit before being defeated.

I’ve heard about the cultural shift where everyone gets a trophy regardless of the outcome, but now I am starting to meet the adult versions of those children. What can happen when individuals reach adulthood and they haven’t learned to lose?

  • A small setback can lead to a sour attitude.

  • A loss can result in blaming others or discrediting winners.

  • A defeat can be debilitating.

Learning to lose begins with being open to experiencing life without concern for the outcome. Next, it’s about staying in the game when faced with adversity. So much can be gained while playing the game.

Appreciate the Experience

When I was in elementary school, I would take a bus from my hometown to a small lakeside community 30 miles away so I could take sailing lessons. Most of the sailboats were single person, and once we learned the basics our instructors set up courses for us to race. I loved sailing, but I was terrible at racing. In fact, not only did I lose, I consistently came in last place.

Once I stopped focusing on winning, I began to enjoy the experience so much more. Being out in the sun and feeling my boat glide across the water was a true joy. I continue to try to apply the lesson of focusing on the journey in my life as an adult.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to win, and I am probably more competitive than I admit. But I’ve found that it’s misguided to make winning the sole focus. Winning is a perfectly good goal, but so is enjoying the experience, building relationships, being a good teammate, and contributing to something greater than yourself. Some things are more important than winning.

Take Ownership

My soccer team in middle school lost almost every game we played. In an attempt to make us feel better, our coaches would make excuses for us like, “Those boys were so much bigger” and “That team has been playing together for years.” Parents chimed in too with lines like, “That referee made a bad call” and “Your coach should have put Jeff in goal.” It didn’t take long before we parroted our coaches and parents. Rather than taking ownership of the losses, we learned to make excuses.

Instead, we should have focused our energy on what we could control and asked the following questions:

  • Were we working hard in practice? Or were we goofing around?

  • Was our conditioning sufficient? Or were we winded by halftime?

  • Did we play as a team? Or did we get down on each other at the first sign of a mistake?

When we take ownership for a loss, we can learn how to prepare better in the future. We also learn an important life lesson: sometimes we put in our best effort and still lose.

Build Character

Losing isn’t fun, but it builds character. Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph once said, “Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.”

You probably won’t compete for a gold medal, but think about Rudolph’s words in whatever terms being a champion means to you. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), once referred to as the “Olympian” of literature, wrote “Only by joy and sorrow does a person know anything about themselves and their destiny.” Echoing Goethe’s words almost two hundred years later, Deepak Chopra wrote, “Life is the coexistence of all opposite values. Joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, up and down, hot and cold, here and there, light and darkness, birth and death.”

We appreciate the joy and pleasure of winning so much more once we have experienced the sorrow and pain of defeat. In essence, by learning to lose we learn to experience life.

For Reflection

  • Is there a “game” where you are currently on the “sideline”?

  • When is just showing up something to celebrate?

  • Think back to a time you have lost; what can you learn about yourself from that experience?

  • Do you appreciate winning more after you have experienced defeat?

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