Charles Thomas: Learning How to Lose

I’m going to do something that I’ve never done in one of my Watershed Voice columns before; I’m going to write about sports. This, however, is not going to be a sports column but rather a column about dealing with disappointment and learning how to lose. So to those of you who hate all the sports, please bear with me for the next four paragraphs.

Recently, University of Michigan Head Basketball Coach Juwan Howard got angry and slapped an opposing coach during a post-game handshake line. Howard was suspended for the rest of the regular season and fined $40,000 for this. He was also roundly criticized for setting a terrible example for his student athletes. Since that event, there has been talk in sports land of abolishing the tradition of the end of game handshake going forward.

Georgetown University head coach and former NBA great Patrick Ewing has said he is in favor of retiring the end of game handshake tradition because he thinks that “anything is possible” when “you’re just getting through a heated battle, a heated game, and anything can happen to make things worse.”

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo disagrees. Izzo told reporters ending the handshake line would send a bad message. “We’ve already taught these poor 18-year-olds that when you’re told to go to class and you don’t like it, you can leave. We’ve already told these kids that if you’re not happy, you can do something else. We’ve already told these kids that it’s hard to hold them accountable. And now we’re going to tell them to not man up and walk down a line to someone who’s kicked your butt and have enough class to shake their hand. (I think that) is utterly ridiculous.”

The handshake line is how the world of sports has tried to help players learn how to be graceful winners, and to lose with dignity and class. Handshake lines give players a chance to practice good sportsmanship and to face their failures head on. Because of that, I’m Team Izzo on this one. I think we need more opportunities like the handshake line, not fewer of them.

We need more opportunities to learn how to lose because dealing with disappointment is a core life skill. Those of us who are strivers know that the more ambitious we are, the more we’ll have to deal with disappointment. This is because we can’t achieve anything of real importance without working through failures along the way. So how can we best handle disappointment when it makes its inevitable appearance in our lives?

As a mental health professional and more importantly a person who has a long track record of failure in his own life, let me modestly suggest the following three steps:

1. First, do not react or take any actions while you are feeling the immediate emotional effects of failure or disappointment. Psychologist John Gottman calls the feeling you get when you are so upset that you can’t think straight, and are flooded with negative emotions, diffuse physiological arousal or DPA. When you are in DPA, your heart rate speeds up, the adrenaline starts to pump through your body, and you are emotionally in survival mode. 

As Juwan Howard can tell you, this is not the time to take action. You are not always capable of thinking rationally when you are in DPA, and thus you are at high risk of doing things you will regret later. So the best thing to do when you find yourself in DPA is to do nothing. Just wait for that feeling to dissipate.

2. Once it has, the next thing you should do is to follow the advice of the fourth Alcoholics Anonymous step and “make a searching and fearless moral inventory” of what happened. Once you are capable of rational thinking again, it’s helpful to look back at what happened and to honestly examine the actions you took that contributed to the failure. What could you have done differently? What missteps did you take that you can learn from and how will you avoid making the same mistakes in the future?

It’s also important to separate the factors that you can change from those that you can’t during this review. There will always be circumstances that contributed to your disappointment that you have very little control over. It’s wise to separate these things out and list them. Once you have that list of the things that you have little control over, I’d suggest setting it aside and spending as little time thinking about those things as possible. Factors outside your control will always exist but spending energy worrying about them is rarely helpful. Your time is much better spent on changing the things that you can change, which is usually your own behavior and actions.

3. Finally, the last step in dealing with disappointment is to remind yourself that the failure you are struggling with in the moment very well may provide the foundation for future success. Failure can help focus us on what really matters, and direct us towards the achievements that are possible as it eliminates those that are not.

Losing is hard. I know. I’ve lost many, many times in my life. But you can lose a whole lot of battles and still win the war. Effectively dealing with disappointment can help you pull out a win even when you lose a battle. On the other hand, ineffectively dealing with failure can make matters worse very quickly.

Just ask Juwan Howard.

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected].


Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.

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