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Losing and coming in second: Is it so bad? Does it make you a loser? Far too many athletes, coaches and parents do NOT understand how coming in second or third provides you with a success all it’s own. Too many athletes, coaches and parents walk around mistakenly feeling like a failure just because they didn’t win. Truth be told, in any given competition there is only one winner and a ton of “losers.” These losers are only losers in that they did not win on that particular day. They are NOT failures. They are not less of an athlete or less of a person despite what the media and others may say about them. These so called “losers” go on to do many great things in their lives. I can proudly say that I am one of these losers! Sooner or later you are going to lose. In fact, you may lose far more often than you win. Get used to it. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not a commentary on your shortcomings. It’s just an integral part of sports and life and how you handle coming in second is what determines whether you achieve real greatness or not.

ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “Disappointment to success”
PARENT’S CORNER – “When you come in second you’re the first loser”
COACH’S OFFICE – “How do you measure winning?”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES –“Winning isn’t everything. Encouragement is!”


“Disappointment to success”

Last June my oldest daughter graduated from high school. It was the first high school graduation I’ve been to since my own, not that I can remember anything significant that happened to me that far back in prehistoric times. Most parents, graduates, friends and extended family look forward to the graduation commencement speech the way you would greet a trip to the dentist to get six teeth drilled without the benefit of Novocain. Graduations tend to be painfully boring, long drawn out affairs, usually held in the growing heat of early summer, which culminate with the invited guest speaker rambling on and on until everyone falls out of their chairs, unconscious.

This graduation speech was refreshingly different. The commencement speaker was a former teacher and music director, a beloved, well-spoken man from Trinidad whose message was quite simple and unbelievably powerful. He started by admitting that he wasn’t the first choice for commencement speaker. Truth be told, he had actually come in third! He was only chosen because the two “best people” weren’t available. He went on to talk about his former job at my daughter’s high school. When he applied for it, he did so only because he had just been rejected at a school where he really wanted to teach. A disappointing failure! He continued listing all the times that he had “lost”, been rejected or failed to get what he had wanted at the time and how his remarkable life had been positively shaped and molded by all these losses, failures and rejections.

I was immediately reminded of a time in the early spring of my senior year in high school when my classmates and I anxiously awaited notification from the colleges of our choice. I was an all “A” student, a member of the honor society, in the top 10% of my high school graduating class and the number one tennis player at my school. I was a virtual Renaissance man, a legend in my own mind. I had my heart set on an Ivy League school, specifically the University of Pennsylvania. I had also applied to Brown and Dartmouth but was hoping to get a tennis scholarship to Penn. A local alumni had been “courting” me and had led me to believe that I had a good chance of playing tennis for Penn. All my friends had applied to these kinds of schools because it was what the “all A” students did. Of course I had my two “safety schools”, but who really needs those when you’re a Renaissance man?

The three responses came in the mail on the very same day. Three, very thin envelopes. I knew even before opening them that the news was quite bad. A thin envelope was not a good sign. Despite this, I rationalized that perhaps I was wrong and that maybe just one of the envelopes contained an acceptance letter. My hands shook as I opened one letter after another and read the devastating news. “Thank you for applying, but we have no more beds available for you. Thanks for your interest in us, but we’re not interested in you! We’re sorry to inform you that we’ve already filled are quota for losers, so unfortunately we have no room for you!” My heart sank. Tears came to my eyes. I wanted to find a deep hole that I could climb into and hide for a few years.

The meaning of these rejections was quite clear to me at the time. I didn’t have what it takes. I was a failure and a loser. Here was the “true” measure of my intelligence and potential. Getting all A’s through high school meant nothing now because these “good” schools didn’t want me. I would be going to my safety school, UMass, where all the other “mediocre” students went. (At the time, in the mid to late 60’s you could actually get into UMass with very low grades and mediocre boards). All my friends would be going off to top schools in the Fall and I would be going to “losersville!” I was totally crushed! My life was over! I didn’t realize it at the time, but more often times than not, college applicants fail to get into their school of first choice. Many, like me, don’t even get into one of their first three choices! In the long run what does this really mean? Was I really a loser? Was I indeed a failure? Did this make me inferior to all my friends who had been accepted to where they wanted to go? If you get cut from your team, does this mean you’re no good and your career in that sport is over? If you lose the game are you really a failure? If all your friends start and your “position” is to collect splinters on the bench, does this make you less important or valuable on the team?

Life is not always about coming in first and getting what you want. It’s not always about winning. In fact, more times than not, it’s about coming in second, third or ninth. It’s about multiple rejections and setbacks. It’s about disappointments and heartache. However, experiencing all these does NOT make you a loser. Failing to get that B on your exam doesn’t make you stupid. Getting cut from the team doesn’t mean you’re not a good athlete. These experiences are just a normal part of life and sports. What determines whether you’re a winner or not rests in how you handle these disappointments.

Your world does not end when you lose. You do not instantly become a worthless person when you fail. Keep your head up. Learn from your mistakes and failures if there is a lesson there. Figure out if there was something that you could’ve done differently to change things. Sometimes there is. Sometimes there isn’t! Once you’ve looked for the learning in the setback, allow yourself to move on. Leave your heartbreak in the past! Stay positive. Deal with what was dealt you with dignity and class. That’s what winners do. Don’t whine! Life’s unfair sometimes. Life throws you curves and bean balls. Stay cool and keep on keeping on. Be a winner. Build your successes on your failures. There is no other way to get where you want to go in life.

So I ended up at “Losersville” and had a very successful college experience and tennis career despite not going to UPenn. I got over the disappointment, embarrassment and humiliation of that huge failure in the first few days of being at UMass. Within a month those painful rejections were long gone. Looking back on it now, it seems kind of sad that I had to go through all that pain in the first place. If only I could have understood that my future was just as bright as it had been before the rejections. Unfortunately when you’ve just been kicked in the stomach, not being able to catch your breath has a tendency to take up all your attention at that moment!

So how did my life turn out? Not too bad, I’d have to say. I have a profession that I totally love and in which I have achieved an international name for myself. I have a great family and a life that I have hand-tailored to keep me happy and fulfilled. What you want to do in your career can be done almost anywhere if you’re willing to really work at it. Would it have been different if I had gone to Penn? Maybe…but who cares!!!! You see, things always have a tendency to work out for the best, if you make the best of how they work out. Strive for perfection. Work to be the best. But, understand that you’ll frequently come up short in the process. When you stumble and fall, get back up and keep at it. You can still be a winner when you lose a lot. You can still come in first, when you finish last.


“When you come in second, you’re the first loser”

What’s in a tee shirt? You decide! She was the number one ranked tri-athlete in the country as a 14 year old. She had been number one last year and the year before that. As a matter of fact, she had been ranked number one nationally since she started competing way back when she was just an 8 year old! Now why any athletic organization would hold national competitions in any sport for such a young age group is beyond me. If you want a good sign that the apocalypse is upon us, here it is! But that’s another story entirely.

As you can well imagine, the national champ’s dad was very proud of his daughter and quite involved in her sport. Understandably he had an extremely loud version of the Olympic theme continually playing in his head. Perhaps this might explain the father’s behaviors. Dad, a former competitive tri-athlete himself, served as both his daughter’s coach and head cheerleader. Father and daughter traveled together to competitions around the country and worked out together. He helped her push herself beyond her limits. When she wanted to back off from training, he was right there “encouraging” her to keep on.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily! In fact, it could be a wonderful thing if it’s done in the proper spirit. Having all that quality time with your daughter is a gift for both involved. However, this assumes that they were spending real “quality” time together. The head of the United States Triathlon Association felt that dad was being just a bit too “enthusiastic” in his pursuit of his daughter’s sports career. Dad was known to push too hard both physically and emotionally. It might make you wonder just how this colored the quality of their time together.

When confronted by other coaches about his excessive driving of his daughter, Dad justified his behaviors by explaining that his girl had tremendous talent and he just wanted what was best for her, that she be great. After all, her record spoke volumes about her overall potential. Truth be told, dad wanted his daughter to be the very best there ever was in the sport. I’m not so sure that this was the little girl’s goal. You might say that dad was a wee bit too competitive. He had an old school, Vince Lombardi kind of understanding of sports. You either win or you lose and there is absolutely nothing in between. A pity that the man was so myopic, or perhaps blind is a better choice of words here.

Looking at your child’s sport in this black and white kind of way means that you miss entirely the true purpose of sports. Believe it or not, kids don’t participate and compete just for the outcome and winning. Sure winning is fun and might even occasionally be important. However, winning is merely a byproduct of the much more important process of participation. It’s the “dance” of sport that is so appealing to athletes. It’s the entire process that holds the meaning: the interaction with teammates and friends; the fun: the physical challenge; the opportunity to master new skills and techniques; the competition; the struggle, etc. Saying that the purpose of a sport is to see who wins the most is like saying that the purpose of dancing is to see who gets from one side of the floor to the other the fastest. This is, of course a ridiculous way of looking at dance, sport and life for that matter. People dance because the entire process is appealing and enjoyable. Plain and simple, it’s pure fun. This is how sports should be approached because it’s this kind of approach alone that will consistently guarantee peak performance!

Unfortunately, dad’s philosophy of competition and sport was entirely different. In dad’s limited view of the world and performance, he had almost no tolerance for anything short of coming in first. In his mind, coming in second was considered a failure. Whatever happened to “personal bests” as a more accurate yardstick for excellence? Just because you come in first doesn’t mean that you are a winner. How many times do athletes play tight and “not-to-lose” and somehow manage to squeak out a victory? How many times do you see athletes bend the rules, outright cheat and carry themselves in an unsportsmanlike manner just to win? Are these athletes really winners? I don’t think so! Whatever happened to the true ideals of victory: Going for it; Playing honorably; Being a good sport?

Unfortunately dad did not realize that he was inadvertently teaching his daughter to fear losing and failure. I can’t think of a worse curse to put on your children than this. There is nothing more crippling in life than to be afraid of failing! Why? If you’re afraid to fail, then you won’t take risks. If you don’t take risks in your life, you’ll never make anything significant happen!

Instead you want to teach your children to understand that failure is a vehicle to get you to excellence. As a matter of fact, it is the only way to get better in anything. You must be willing to fail to progress. You must learn to develop a high tolerance for failure. Failure is nothing more than feedback. It’s should be presented as a learning experience, rather than a cause for embarrassment and humiliation.

How can you possibly hope to reach your potential and improve as an athlete without a healthy attitude towards failure? If coming in second, third or last is that “unacceptable”, then an athlete will be plagued by worries about losing. Performing with this kind of negative outcome focus is a guaranteed setup for choking and failure. Furthermore, dad didn’t realize that he was also teaching his little girl to over focus on and fear the competition. After all, if coming in second is so noxious, then you have a tendency to become threatened by your competitors. Your opponents become the dreaded “enemy.” The fact of the matter is that your opponent is your partner, NOT your enemy. A worthy opponent inspires you. He brings out the best there is in you. He challenges you. The better your opponent, the more opportunity you have for a personal best. Teaching your children to fear the competition and dread failing is flat out wrong! It is nothing more than a great way to consistently kill their enjoyment of the sport and ruin their performance.

So what’s in a tee shirt? Well, dad was so excited about his girl’s success that he had a tee shirt custom made for both of them that said, “When you come in second, you’re the first loser!” Kind of catchy isn’t it? Maybe you can have one made for your child’s entire team. Isn’t that special? Doesn’t that just say it all: Being the “first loser” is a fate worse than death. Smarten up dad! Get with the program here! You’ve got it all wrong. You can come in second and be an unbelievable winner! That second place finish may represent a lifetime best time for you! Shouldn’t you get excited about that? Isn’t that what a winner really is?

I’ve lost track of dad and his protégé over the years. I’m not too sure just how their relationship ended up. However I am sure of one thing. His daughter got pretty sick of always having to be “numero uno.” I also know she hasn’t competed in a triathlon for quite some time now. I believe she started playing field hockey a while ago, a sport that her dad knew absolutely nothing about.

Parents! Give your kids a break. Expecting them to win all the time is not only stupid and slightly sadistic, but it’s not exactly realistic! Lighten up and teach them to expect and manage their failures, disappointments and setbacks. Losing is an integral and important part of life. Teach your children how to constructively use their losses and disappointments to make themselves real winners!


“How are you measuring winning?”

UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden had unbelievably high expectations of his players and teams. He pursued excellence with passion and precision, demanding the same of his players. Perhaps that’s why he had such a successful coaching career, one that landed him in the coaching Hall of Fame. Maybe that explains why his UCLA Bruins were such a dominant force, winning 10 national collegiate basketball championships. Is it possible that this also explains how he sent so many players on to the NBA and why he is so beloved and respected by the vast majority of his players?

Coach Wooden had an interesting view of winning and success, one very different than the majority of coaches today. Most coaches organize their season around winning games and beating certain opponents. These coaches strategize before critical games about how to best shut down the opposition and emerge victorious. Now this in itself isn’t unusual or bizarre. And I’m quite sure that winning was important to Coach Wooden on some level. After all, you can’t have that kind of commitment to excellence without wanting to be number one. However, the Wizard of Westwood was much more concerned with his team’s performance than he was with what the opponent was doing.

This is why it was said that Coach Wooden never scouted the opposing team. Most coaches today might view this strategy of going into a game “completely blind” as a lack of adequate preparation and downright irresponsible. How can you possibly expect to defeat an opponent if you don’t have a clue how they play and what their strengths and weaknesses are? In truth, this is a reasonable question for you to ask. However, Coach Wooden’s rational was simple and for him and his squads, quite effective. He felt that if his Bruins played their own game and executed the way that they’d been trained using their own game plan, then it wouldn’t really matter what the opposing team did. Whether you think this approach is irresponsible or not, Coach Wooden used it brilliantly.

While it may be useful to carefully scout your opponent and then clue your players in on what to expect when they compete, there is a significant problem with this strategy, which Wooden completely avoided. Everything about your opponent is a “UC” or uncontrollable. In a sense, what your opponent does and how they play is directly out of your control. Yes, you can indirectly control your opponent by taking care of your business and playing your own game. However, whether your opponent plays out of their mind or not is something that you really can’t control. When athletes and teams focus on any uncontrollable factor they get uptight, loose their confidence and perform way below their potential. As a matter of fact, giving your teams too much information about the opposition can lead to psych-outs and intimidation. Quite frequently the less your team knows about the competition’s reputation and strength, the better they’ll play against them.

Wooden’s philosophy of focusing his squad on themselves and how they played coincided with his view of success and winning. Success in John Wooden’s eyes had less to do with the outcome of the game and more to do with the process of how you played the game. If his team lost a close game, yet executed brilliantly and according to game plan, Wooden would praise them for being successful. In his mind, although they had lost the actual game, they were winners. Similarly, if the team won the game yet failed to execute effectively, Coach Wooden would criticize their play. He would not view this victory as a true win. In his mind, this was a failure that needed correcting.

Interestingly enough, when you as a coach separate yourself from the outcome of the game and instead, redefine “winning” as how the team plays rather than the final score, you free your players up to reach new performance heights. There is nothing that ties a player up in knots faster than having an outcome focus. When you make the outcome of a game too important, or over stress the need to beat a particular opponent, you are inadvertently setting your athletes up to play tentatively and choke. This is because the outcome of a game is another one of those UC’s. In essence, once an athlete steps out onto the field or court, winning is totally out of his or her control. What the athlete can control is how well she does her particular job, how much he hustles, how she deals with setbacks and mistakes, the kind of attitude he maintains, and the intensity that she plays with. In essence, an athlete has control over the process of the game as it evolves. This is where Coach Wooden kept his athletes focused. This is why they were so successful.

How about you? How do you define “winning” for your players? Do you free them up to play well by keeping their focus away from the game’s outcome? Do you give them permission to really go for it by not freaking out whenever they make mistakes or fail? Do you reward great play even if the team loses the game? Take a lesson from the Wizard. It wasn’t luck that got him into the Hall of Fame. He may be old and retired now, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about his ideas.


“Winning isn’t everything. Encouragement is!”

Winning and success are not always about outcome. As a tennis player I have played some of the best tennis of my life, only to lose the match. Afterwards I did not have a tournament victory and trophy to show for my great play. What I did have was more genuine and meaningful: The inner knowledge that I had played to my potential that day. This is, after all, what the challenge of competitive sports is all about: Going all out, doing the very best you possibly can do and being a good human being in the process.

I have a ton of tennis trophies in my office that represent tournament victories but some of these trophies and the wins they represent don’t leave me feeling like a winner. Why? Because a few of these victories were exceptionally ugly affairs where I was seeded #1, expected to win, terrified of losing and where I played tentatively. I may have won the tournament, but I didn’t play like a winner. One of these victories in particular is especially embarrassing to me and I’d like to share it with you.

Whether you’re a coach, athlete or parent there is a lesson in this story for you. I’m not sure what learning you’ll discover from my airing of some very old, particularly smelly, dirty laundry. However I do know one thing: Winning isn’t the only thing….encouragement is. It’s not the victory that’s important and that brings satisfaction. It’s how you go about the victory that counts.

Back in the good old days, before I evolved into the sensitive human being and Renaissance Man that I am today, I was a 16 year old! Like most boys that age, I was a little short on social skills and a lot disconnected from my feelings. Worse yet, I honestly believed that the only self-worth I had in my life began and ended on the tennis court. When I was playing well I had a sense of identity and purpose in life. I was somebody. I felt good about myself. However, when I played poorly, or didn’t have a racquet in my hand I had zero self-esteem. I was nobody!

Whether you’re a painfully self-conscious adolescent, a mature adult and parent, or a Division I coach, measuring your self-worth based on how well you perform and what you accomplish on or off the playing field is a sad commentary on your life and a recipe for disaster. If your self-worth is on the line whenever you compete, the outcome of that game or match is going to be much too important to you. When you need to win this badly you’ll either choke big time or end up acting like an ugly human. It’s an example of this latter state of being that I’d like to describe to you right now.

I had just won the singles title of a weekend tournament and my partner and I decided to try for the doubles title. Mike was my partner at the time and he was a much weaker player than myself. This was mainly because his play was very inconsistent and streaky. However, because the tournament field was so weak, we easily made it all the way to the finals. Our opponents in the finals weren’t that strong and we easily won the first set 6-1. Mike had played pretty well in this set and had more than held his own. We went up 4-0 in the second and deciding set and were cruising to the title when Mike’s game decided to take a little vacation. It started with his return of serve. He hit three in a row into the net. I was OK with this because I knew we were going to win anyway. My self-esteem wasn’t being threatened quite yet so I could be supportive and encouraging. However, when he missed an easy, put away volley that would’ve put us ahead 5-0, I remember feeling a twinge of annoyance! However, I was able to keep these feelings to myself until he missed a second easy shot that cost us the game. Now it was 4-1 and I was a little angry! Suddenly I stopped being so reassuring and supportive. I said to Mike with some degree of impatience and urgency, “C’mon Mike. Let’s Go!”

I got the ball to serve and didn’t even look at Mike. Looking back, I know he was probably feeling badly that he had cost us the game and my being impatient with him couldn’t have helped him settle down and let go of his mistakes. In fact, now I was giving him more to be uptight about. Truth be told, inside of me my confident façade was beginning to crack. Visions of the “what if’s” danced in my head. Even though there was absolutely no reason to, I began feeling threatened that we might lose. Remember, when your ego is on the line every time that you step up to compete you will always be vulnerable to choking and consistently underachieve.

My first serve was a good one and the opponent floated back a weak return to Mike. He took a full swing and dumped the ball into the net! Love – 15. Unbelievable! He looked back at me apologetically and I gave him a dirty look! Oh, good show Alan! Way to be supportive! My visible anger only served to make Mike more uncomfortable and he proceeded to hit the next shot out. Love – 30! Now I was really getting upset! Again I yelled, “Let’s Go!” in less than a supportive way. I came in behind my next serve and then I missed an easy volley. Love – 40! In my head I was blaming Mike for my miss! We should’ve been up 40 – Love and now we were about to lose the game. My panic began to percolate. Our opponents got a whiff of the dissension on our team and with our unforced errors got a boost of confidence. They won the next point to make it 4-2 in games.

The next game went as badly as the last with Mike making a ton of unforced errors and giving our opponents another game. I was beside myself! I was upset with Mike and at the same time, realized that I had been acting like a total jerk! Unfortunately, since winning was so important to me, I just couldn’t help myself. The more angry I got with Mike, the worse he played. Now it was 4 – 4 in the second set and we were in big trouble. I was even more terrified that we’d lose and my insecurity was seeping into my game. I was beginning to play tentatively. And just when it looked like the you-know-what was going to hit the fan, the momentum turned back in our favor and we won the next two games to close out the match and win the title.

Before the awards ceremony I apologized to Mike for getting angry with him. He told me to forget it and that it was no big deal. I NEVER forgot it and it WAS a big deal! I won another trophy that day but I was not a winner. I was totally ashamed of myself. I had acted like a total loser because I had made winning too important! What kind of team player gets down on his teammates when they screw up? Not a champion! Certainly, not a winner!

What I was too immature to understand at the time was that being a winner involves far more than the outcome of any game, match or race. It’s about HOW you compete. It’s about how you interact with your teammates. It’s about your attitude and the way you deal with the tough times. What I didn’t know back then was that winners ENCOURAGE their teammates rather then put them down. Supporting your teammates and building them up is everything. As a coach, your ability to build your athletes up through this support and encouragement is critical to your success. Genuine support and encouragement builds champions, not an infantile preoccupation with winning!

If you have a performance difficulty or you’re consistently underachieving, call me today. I can help!


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