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How To Grow When You're Losing

I called our final timeout and huddled our group of 8th and 9th graders together to give them one final push. I don't recall the exact words, but I remember telling them they should be so close they could tell me what their man's breath smelled like and/or what they ate last. We were down double digits in the final minute of the 1st round of the playoffs of a church basketball league. It was the type of league where every team makes the playoffs, which was necessary, since we hadn't won a game yet. One game we scored three points. Like 1-2-3. The whole game. I'm pretty sure it was three different scorers. If you are not a fan of basketball, that is not good. It was a long day.

After the timeout, we were on fire. Our full court press forced them into turnovers, and if we didn't get a quick turnover, we would intentionally foul to stop the clock. Once the game clock got under 20 seconds, we started intentionally fouling exclusively. We made some key shots, and their frustration led them to foul us as well. After we made the free throw to go ahead with 3 seconds left, I thought we would pull it off. We had one of the same teams that defeated us during the season, both literally and figuratively, on the brink of elimination.

They inbound the ball and the clock starts to move. I am anxious but not worried, since we have momentum and odds on our side. We just have to make sure we don't foul. 2 seconds. I see one of our players beelining towards the ball handler. He was the kid that goes through a growth spurt and isn't used to their new body yet. Imagine a baby deer with a basketball. Regardless, he had a great attitude and did everything you told him with 100% effort. Unfortunately for us, we did not tell the team to stop fouling once we went ahead. 1 second. I am screaming at the top of my lungs "DON'T FOUL! DON'T FOUL!" but our doe is running with his back to the bench, towards the opposite sideline and proceeds to foul the ball handler into the second row of the bleachers. The horn sounds and whistle blows, signaling the end of regulation and a foul.

It was our doe's 5th foul, so he fouled out of the game, a feat that he accomplished almost every game but usually much sooner. As he came to the sideline with his head down, I was sure to be the first to meet him. I told him to keep his head up because he just played his best game of the season and let him know that it's my fault because I should have told them not to foul. Was it directly my fault? Of course not, he was the one who committed the foul, but he did so under my leadership, so in order to be a good loser, the first step is to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. There were a ton of facts that we could have used as excuses, but we didn't. We focused on the things we could control and improved each chance we got.

One of the things we can control is our attitude and energy, and it is imperative that you BRING THE SAME ENERGY, regardless of results. Anyone can be positive when things are going great, but the true test of character is how someone responds in the face of adversity. I have been a poor loser most of my life, and it took me being intentional about responding positively to adversity before I saw change. losing shows you what you're made of, and people around you can feel the difference in energy, if you let them. I focused on showing up as if we were on a winning streak, making sure we were getting better each rep, each practice, and communicated that improvement to our players., with a big emphasis on communication.

What you appreciate, appreciates, so we like to CELEBRATE THE SMALL WINS. It's easy to get caught up in only the win/loss record, but it's important to remember that we coach kids, and kids need encouragement. Obviously, they also need discipline and structure, but I've found that getting fired up when a kid does something right typically incentivizes them to continue doing it. And I am not necessarily talking about the obvious things they do, but when you can see a player pick up a skill or make a decision that takes some thought, praise that action. The more kids notice that you notice the small things, the more likely they also will pay attention to them. Celebrating the small wins is a tip for anyone who wants to improve, but it becomes especially important when you aren't winning the literal game. Remind them that consistency is key because growth compounds.

SEPARATE PEOPLE'S WORTH FROM THEIR RESULTS is something we practice, regardless of winning or losing. You can't let winning go to your head, or losing to your heart. Even though we work with kids, it's been a challenge for me because I have worked in sales my adult life, so it can feel like I only have value when I produce. Anyone who works in sales knows it can be a very "what have you done for me lately?" type of atmosphere, so if you're not at the top of the report, the effort you're putting in may go unnoticed. Even worse, when you're getting unwanted results, like a string of no-sales, it can be easy to question your worth. Athletics, similar to sales, is production oriented; the work you put in is directly related to the results you get. Unfortunately, the timing of those results is not, so remember that people, including you, have value beyond what you produce.

We could only look on as the ball handler lined up to take his free throws. The referee reminds everyone that he gets two shots before he passes him the ball. As he goes through his free-throw routine and prepares to shoot, siblings of players on our team tried their best to distract him. "MISS IT! MISS IT!" They yell, but their attempt is in vain. He drains the first one. Tie game. The referee grabs the ball, signals one shot and passes the ball back. The siblings are stomping, yelling, begging. "MISS IT! MISS IT!", but the ball handler is unaffected and drains the second one, securing the win for his team and a winless season for us. As we lined up to shake hands I told our guys to make sure to hold their heads up, look them in the eye, and tell them great game. I have a lot of respect for what Vince Lombardi did for football, but I hate the saying show me a good loser and I will show you a loser. Obviously, things are different at the professional level, and losing is never fun, but when everyone sees you handle losing with grace, it reminds us that sports are about more than wins and losses. It's about learning, having fun, and becoming a better version of yourself, which includes how you handle defeat.

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