The Essential Loser
When I initially sat down with this post, I was coming off a pretty bad hockey season. Much of what I wrote I didn’t like. So I put it away for a while. Now I’m looking at it a bit more dispassionately.
I’ve been playing competitive recreational sports for a few years now. For the past several I’ve been skating in a men's hockey league. It is in no way a feeder for professional hockey. It is however a place where we can learn a lot about other people and ourselves. Before that, I played in a basketball league or two and raced mountain bikes in the late 90’s and 2000’s. In that time I’ve come across some strong competitors. I’ve also come across some losers.
So what is a loser exactly? For this exercise, I’m going to remove the scoreboard from the equation. Rather, I’m going to define winners and losers by the spirit of and dedication to competition they embody.
I believe we can break competitors into two groups: good losers and bad. Within these two groups, how does the competitor handle the following topics.
Blame / Excuses
When I initially developed the outline of this post, I considered “Blame” and “Excuses” to be two separate categories. I’ve obviously changed my mind. In my opinion, these two are perhaps the most insidiously destructive attributes of the bad loser.
Good loser: The good loser looks within first. He/she says things like: “What could I have done differently?” “I really failed my team.” “I shouldn’t have gotten those penalties.” “I simply have to get better.” “I have to step up and help lead my team.” “No excuse.”
Bad loser: The bad loser looks elsewhere. In doing so, this makes the bad loser powerless. This is something that I personally struggled with. The minute you blame someone else, you’ve essentially lost control. Blaming the referees, blaming your teammates, blaming your bike, blaming the ice; it can go on forever. In my experience, simply saying, “no excuse” to yourself emboldens you. You are the person with the power. I highly recommend it. Try it.
As a father, sometimes I really have to think about how I’ll justify rules to my son when he gets older. Distilling things down to their base can be difficult. Why is something important when it may actually seem quite arbitrary? Sportsmanship is one of those things. Again, I come back to a position of power that differentiates the good loser from the bad loser. Let me give you an example.
There is a team in one of my leagues that I hate. There are players on that team that I actually would like to punch in the face if I saw them on the street on a random summer day. But I have NEVER failed to line up like a man, shake their hand, and congratulate them on a good game. Why is this? Well, I think I can do it not because I’m a good player but because I skated a full three periods. I did my part. They were simply better.
There’s something else though: respect for the game. This can be a bit cheesy for some but I think I’m getting it. It isn’t that you worship at the altar of the hockey gods, the divine pitch of rugby, or the Hall of Cycling Justice (if there was such a place, I’d like to go!). There are rules and expectations. There are guidelines for taking part in the ceremony. Failure to pay respect is abdicating your responsibility as a competitor. You’re breaking the rules. Plus, you’re being weak. You’re showing your opponent that they really broke you mentally. That’s no bueno.
In the end, just be a true competitor and show up and face your opponent. Don’t be a baby.
Good loser: Strong handshake, eye contact, sincere congratulations, and acknowledgment. Bonus points for singling a specific player out for a great play/goal/effort.
Bad loser: Walks off the floor/ice/field / etc. Weak handshake, no eye contact, insincere, and goes through the motions.
Effort and Execution
And now for my favorite: Quitting. Quitting is toxic. As a recovering quitter, I can tell you it takes a lot of effort to break the habit. I’ve heard people say that it’s not a habit you can break. That’s simply not true.
On a bit of a side note, I should mention injuries. Injuries are a tough one to tackle but I’m not a huge fan of guys that get injured and leave while the contest is still going. There are obvious, common-sense exceptions like a broken leg or a concussion. But within reason, if you’re still moving and can contribute, you can be there. And if you can’t, in my opinion, it’s a good idea to stay with your team. This last part doesn’t apply to individual sports. The goal here is to struggle to the end. You’ll thank yourself for it later and your team will thank you for your encouragement and dedication. If your back is hurt either take your pads off and stay on your bench or shower and come back out quickly. You’re on a team. Take it seriously.
Good loser: Executes to the end. Stays positive. Encourages teammates. Keeps a steady level of effort from beginning to end.
Bad loser: Stops executing. Stops encouraging teammates. Sends out bad vibes or uses negative language. Walks away before the end. The level of effort is inconsistent and is based on the score or ranking of the individual at the moment.