A guest post by Jason Dorland – a coach whose mission is to improve coaches’ skills as educators.
In almost every instance young athletes learn that winning, not losing is the preferred outcome in competition. They learn it from their coaches, from their teachers, from their parents, from teammates and their peers. A few games into their season, it doesn’t take them long to discover that when they win, everyone tends to be happier. Understandably, winning is fun and we generally celebrate our successes. The trouble is they also learn that losing, therefore, is less fun—even wrong in some instances. And, that’s where the damage often begins.
I can still remember winning my first hockey game when I was ten-years-old. Man, that was fun! Our coach was thrilled. Our parents were overjoyed—one of the dads even bought donuts for the whole team. Naturally, us young hockey players were pretty excited as well. I mean, what was not to like? We had free donuts! And, our head-coach was in a good mood.
As much as I remember that glorious moment of stuffing my face with a chocolate glazed donut, I also remember the first time we lost. Talk about climate change! It was like Old Man Winter himself came into the change room. The coaches were no longer happy. Nor were our parents. There were no free donuts, and we were left wondering, “What—all because we lost a hockey game?”
WHERE TO BEGIN:
One of my greatest challenges as a coach has been to remain emotionally even-keeled in my response to the teams I’ve worked with whether they’ve won—or lost. Truth be told, it’s harder than you think. The reason being, it flies in the face of every social cue that we learn as young children.
When I come home from a day of meetings where I’ve had to leave our dog Katie by herself, the welcome I receive is warm and generous. She wags her tail. She licks my face. She expresses her genuine joy in knowing that I’ve come home and that we’ve been reunited.
This is why dogs are quite often the go-to example of the term ‘unconditional love.’ Her love for me is not conditional upon anything. Despite my being away for a number hours having left her alone to fend for herself, she doesn’t have the slightest inkling to ignore me or welcome me in such a way that might show her disapproval of my behaviour. Which is exactly what we do as coaches when we receive our athletes differently based on whether or not they’ve won or lost.
You may think that being upset at your team’s loss, however normal that may be in our society, is harmless and in fact might even provide a little extra sting in motivating them to perform better the next time—think again.
I would argue the message you’re relaying with that strategy is, “I like you when you win; but I don’t like you when you lose.” The long term damaging effect of that messaging can be devastating.
In a few weeks time, athletes from around the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the XXXI Olympic Games. They will dazzle us with their athleticism, impress us with their fitness and inspire us with their grit as they strive to be crowned Olympic Champions.
Following those Games, many of the athletes will retire from their sport. And, as is so often the case, a number of them will struggle through that transition as they seek to create a new life outside of the one that many of them have known since childhood. [Editor note: A website for athletes transitioning to retirement CrossingTheLineSport run by Rowing Ireland’s former athlete Geroid Towey]
I believe one of the reasons that transition is so difficult for athletes is because of the messaging that began for them when they were younger. They learned, as I mentioned earlier, that their coaches liked them more when they won and less when they lost. Naturally at that young age, their survival mechanism kicked in and they endeavoured to keep their coaches happy. Furthermore, doing what we humans do so well—make meaning of everything—they began to establish a belief that defined them, “I’m good when I win and not so much when I lose.”
Often they become afraid of their coaches. More specially, they become fearful of their coaches reaction to the results of their performance.
In keeping those important adult figures in their lives happy, they develop their self-worth through sport and more importantly through winning. As competitive seasons progress, their identity has been formed through their participation in sport. And, for many athletes, it’s the first and most important identity they form.
As they get older and experience greater success compounded with further messaging that they have more worth when they win and less when they lose, sport becomes the vehicle by which they not only garner their identity, but also their self-worth as well.
When that vehicle is taken away—when they retire from sport—not surprisingly, many of those athletes are left lost with nothing to identify with and thereby nothing from which to achieve their self-worth.
Invariably these individuals acquire a familiar label—Type A personality. The interesting thing about this label that so many in our society wear as a badge, is that it’s not really a compliment. The essence of it’s meaning is that one strives to achieve worth outside of themself by setting lofty goals that they incessantly chase after. The end game is to appear worthy in the eyes of those around them once they’ve achieved success. Trouble is it’s never enough. Once the goals are achieved, they set others in the hopes that, ‘this time I’ll be good enough.’ Sadly, the good enough never holds, and they’re lost again striving for that elusive moment of joy when they recognize their own self-worth.
This pattern is born out of the early messaging that we coaches provide, and should lend us a moment of reflection—am I setting my athletes up for a future life of chasing their own self-worth?
When young athletes learn that losing upsets the important adult figures in their lives, naturally they become fearful of that very result. As we all know, the more fearful we are of losing, the harder it becomes to win.
So herein lies the opportunity for coaches and for parents. By following these simple suggestions, you not only improve the performance of your athletes, but also ensure a healthier mindset as well as emotional wellbeing while they’re involved in sport.
Focus on the performance of your athletes, not just their results.
Receive your athletes with the same level of interest, respect and love regardless of whether or not they win or lose.
When you ask your athletes how things went after a game and they answer, “Lousy—we lost!” Ask them, “Yes, but how’d you play?” Take the focus off of the outcome through your conversations.
If your athletes are upset when they lose, engage in a conversation that seeks to understand why. Try to unpack the old messaging that has resulted in that response and see if you can’t redirect the dialogue to explore ways to get better for next game.
“I love to watch you play!” These five words having been making the rounds on coaching websites in the last year. I’m not proposing you say them ad nauseam to your athletes. What I am suggesting however is that you embrace their meaning when you coach. Be excited about coaching your athletes for who they are, not what they do.
These easy guidelines provide a foundation by which coaches and even parents can begin to alter the thinking of our young athletes. Thereby creating a healthier environment for them to develop and flourish. The bonus is—when individuals who already value themselves compete; they no longer rely on the results of their performance to provide reassurance that they have self-worth. Without that added stress, naturally, their potential is vastly improved as they perform at a higher level and possibly even win more often.