Saturday, March 12, 2022

A Theology For Losing?

A heads up for this blog: I'm going to spend a few posts in March and April on trends and observations in sports and then in May, I plan to explore the need for coaches to add mental health observation/education/care for their athletes and what that may look like in today's culture.

If you would like to send a guest post on mental health and coaching- please send it to me at jayopsis@gmail.com.

Here is today's post:

"We were flat." "They wanted it more than us.""The officials were terrible." "Our coaches aren't playing the right people." "That other team is a bunch of cheaters."

It is amazing how many things you hear right after a loss. Some words are healthy and healing, but a lot of 'talk' after a loss is senseless mumbling. Our natural human response is a desire to know 'why's' , we need to see 'reasons', and often we want to cast 'blame' as natural responses to the feelings we have when a team loses a game.

Is there a correct response to losing? I believe there is! I believe that wins AND losses are a great time to display our core values and priorities and can serve us well in the future when life throws victory and defeat our way... and often these life situations are more serious and consequential. And we always point to the truth of the Bible (including Romans 8:28) as help and hope in these moments.

A QUICK TIP TO COACHES- my advice is to say very little to your team after a loss. Take some time and carefully craft your response... this is a fragile time and it takes time to formulate the response. Don't squeeze toothpaste out of the tube by a scorched earth speech that you will have to do damage control later.

BALANCE- A VERY NARROW TIGHTROPE

Spend enough time with me and eventually you will hear a 'quip' that I have quoted for decades- "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser." It normally gets a good chuckle from my audience and it has a history found within the cultural literacy of our society. It is normally attributed to Vince Lombardi. In Alabama, it is attributed to Coach Bryant and has been linked to many people from Richard Nixon to Tiger Woods.

Unfortunately, it is often used to justify an inappropriate response to a loss. But this is NOT an excuse.

One of my high school coaches quoted Coach Bryant as saying, "The only thing you learn from losing is that you don't want to do it again." Then, my freshman year I heard Coach Bryant say it differently when he told us, "you have to learn from losing so you do all you can to not experience it again."

When I use the quote I am referring to the reality that 'losing hurts'... and if it doesn't hurt, it may show the lack of a component necessary to be a great competitor- "winning matters'. The desire to win is an incentive to work hard, compete hard, and that the prize of victory is 'worth it'.

I Corinthian 9:25 has this 'desire for victory'  in the context of "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever."

But this verse also shows why the quote 'show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser' CAN"T be used to justify inappropriate reactions to losing- "They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever"

In other words, we train to respond correctly to losing BECAUSE we are competing for a higher reward and responding appropriately to a loss, means we respond with an acknowledgment that there is something higher and more important.... EVEN IF WE DON'T FEEL LIKE IT. That is what 'strict training' actually means.

So let's explore this a little bit more.....

On my desk I have another Lombardi quote: "The harder you work the harder it is to surrender." So let's be honest with ourselves... LOSING HURTS! And if it doesn't, then it is likely that you really didn't care enough to REALLY go for it. Now, to be clear, it may not show on the outside because some humans are wired to NOT show pain. My warning to coaches is to not judge a player be what you observe on the outside after a loss. And we do need to explore the balance that losing hurts... so there has to be an allowance for emotional responses. Can I really get on a player who cries after a loss? or screams? or has an outburst?

Another great challenge to coaches is "What have you done to educate your expectations to your team right after a loss?" "What are your procedures in walking your team through a loss?"

And it may be something like this- "You are going to hurt if/when we lose one day. It is going to really hurt. But in your disappointment, there are things you just cannot do. You will not throw your helmet, you will not scream profanity, you will not lash out at your teammate or opponent. But I also realize there will very hard emotions... sometimes kids hit a knee, lays down, or sits down and they don't want to get up. Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes there is a desire to blame or lash out. We have to be a TEAM at that time. It is OK to hug and comfort a player who is crying. It is OK to help your brother get off the ground. It is also OK to restrain or lovingly correct or instruct a teammate who crosses the boundaries because their emotions got the best of them. And, this is important, there will be consequences for violating our clear and reasonable boundaries. This discipline is good because it is a help to grow and help you to not do that incorrect behavior again. I'm not disciplining you because I don't like you, I am discipling you out of a care for you. "

I may end up writing a separate post about 'team discipline when rules are broken' with more detail later and I believe all coaches should meditate on Hebrews 12 in this important area.  But my suggestion is to restrain and correct quickly when the inappropriate behavior occurs (and it is usually an understandable 'hot' response or reaction) but save the consequences for later after the emotions have had time to cool. When I was a head coach, I would often give consequences to a player on the next day or even the next Monday to keep the punishment as business like as possible and give me time to think about the best tools for correction.

The bottom line is that, unfortunately- losses do come. No one is undefeated except Jesus. (Note: I have said this for years and then one day a friend of mine mentioned the disciple, Judas and said "Even Jesus didn't win them all- He was 11-1" - I will let the theologians argue that one)

BUT WE NEED TO BE CAREFUL HERE- THE PENDULUM CAN GO TOO FAR

I have often had to critique Christians in this arena as well. I have had to deal with some rather bizarre theories and applications of Christian living and sports. I have had Bible teachers tell me that 'competition is antithetical to New Testament living and yet I see competition, warfare, battle, and other types of struggles all the way through the Bible. Christian living IS competition... a war between two kingdoms, a battle with sinful nature, and opposition from Babylon on almost every page.

There is also what I term the "Kumbaya Klub" where Christian teams show up, get beat really bad, and walk around with 'Jesus loves you' stickers and you make the other team feel good about beating you.

I also have to be careful with the "Win in your heart but not the scoreboard" mentality. No, the scoreboard counts. And at the end we want to experience victory and we don't like defeat.

A final critique regarding Christian views of loss includes the one I like the least... "sin in the camp".

We lost a quarterfinal football game one year and we ended the season with that lone loss- 13-1. I rarely cry after a loss (though it crushes my soul to lose), but one of my good friends walked up to me and put his hand on my heart and said "Coach, what a season! Thank you SO MUCH for all you do! Love you!". When he touched be, it was like turning on a water faucet and tears just exploded out of my eyes! It shocked me and probably was the first time I had cried in a long, long time. We just didn't grow up that way.

The next Monday, I had another friend come up to me and here is what he said. "Coach, tough loss! I have been thinking about it this weekend and here is my thought... there must have been sin in the camp." which is a reference to Joshua 7-9 when little Ai routed the Israelites because they had sinned against the Lord. My response? "Well we are in DEEP trouble then. Because as long as I'm coaching here, there will be sin in the camp." 

STREAKS AND LESSONS

In 1998, we went 15-0 and won the state championship and then went 13-2 to win a back to back state tile again in 1999. It was a culmination of an amazing winning streak where we had our fourth 10-0 regular season and at then end of that year we had a four year record  of 51-4. In those kind of streaks, you just feel like you will never lose.

As a coach I have only experienced 4 'losing' seasons in 30 years. (4-6, 5-6. 3-7, and 5-6). The 3-7 and 5-6 record came in back to back 2009 and 2010 as a head football coach (and that was my last year to ever be a head coach). Just as I felt like we would never lose in that 96-99, losing began to feel like a habit during those last two years and I sometimes wonder if I would ever win again. 

But I also learned something important. 

In that 98/99 streak we lost a tough game down in Mobile- Friday, Sept 10, 1999 to UMS-Wright 26-31. It was our 1st regular season loss since 1995 and broke our streak of 17 straight games that went back to 1997. After that loss the next Monday, I met with a heartbroken group of guys and simply said.... "Guys, so far, all that most of you have learned from football is winning. If that is all you ever get from this game, then it has been a dis-service. You also need to learn about responding to a loss." And this team did.... and went on to that 2nd championship.

But another important lesson I learned was how much I grew to love and appreciate the 3-7 team. It was comprised of a lot of young guys who lost a lot of close games. They came out and fought like warriors every game that year. They loved one another well and I never ever felt like they were 'losers'. The next year, they were better and we just had some unfortunate injury situations that season.

We tend to define success by the scoreboard.... a win is an achievement but isn't always 100% a success.

A loss is not an achievement, but it can end up leading someone to becoming a 'success'.

'REASONS' FOR A LOSS

After any loss, a coach has feelings and circumstances to process. We tend to think in terms of things we could or should have done that would change the outcome. Indeed in many sports competitions, the outcome falls on a hand full of plays or circumstances. We live by a motto that "the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win" and that is why we practice with a pursuit of perfection- but I have never seen a perfect game of a perfect practice in my 58 years of life. I might possible say 'near perfect' but how close or far away is that? It is similar to trying  meditation on eternity.

One year we suffered a very difficult loss in Nashville after a nice winning streak. As I was grading the tape it became very clear that the outcome was in some ways a result of a mistake that we had been making during our previous wins, it just didn't show up as a fatal flaw until we played an opponent who could expose and use that mistake in their favor. Ouch! Those kind of losses hurt because I should have recognized this mistake and worked to correct it BEFORE it cost us.

The last thing we tend to do in analyzing losses is to actually give the opponent credit. I get it, a competitor never believes that he couldn't have found a way to win if he had gone harder, prepared better, been smarter, had better luck, or felt like the clock just ran out... but guess what? Sometimes the other team is just better and "a beat is a beat". Coach Fred Yancey used to love telling a story about his brother Bob who very successful and was one of those  'relentlessly positive' coaches. His team lost one night 49-7 and Fred called his brother to console him. Bob's response? "Fred, we were right there with them until they scored 42 points!" And we all have to love that attitude!

So there are quite a number of factors that can contribute to a loss, many of them are actually out of a team's control- other team better, bad bounce, unfortunate injury, controversial or missed official's call, weather impacted, team illness, emotional crisis... and others

But let's explore some components that can contribute to a loss that we underestimate or miss or could be improved or controlled..

MENTAL FREEZE UP OR NEGATIVE VOICES

I have written on this before, but athletes who are burdened by expectations or consumed by mis-guided, results oriented validation will under-perform in pressure situations. Because I work with teens, this is the hardest hurdle to overcome because the immaturity of the individual hasn't allowed for a solid development in this arena. It takes a starting varsity QB a full 3-5 games in the heat of battle until I believe they are adequately pressurized to handle a do or die situation.

My experience with athletes over the last two decades has shown me that the issue is more prominent today than in previous decades and I primarily blame the pressure on kids to earn a scholarship. And I believe they play in too many meaningless games where winning or losing is of no consequence because it is simply a have fun and showcase 'my stats' to get noticed by the scouts.

The problem with coaches today is that we are too quick to label a kid as mentally weak or a poor competitor and we don't persevere enough with a kid and let them grow up in their ability to focus and fight with freedom. As long as a kid is focused on himself and his reward, he will rarely pull through in the clutch. We have to create TEAM concepts- "I am fighting for my brother. I am going to lift him up." Then my stats don't matter, we celebrate a win together. Starters, stars, role players, and sideline personnel all come together and win together.

I usually cringe when a college scout shows up at one of our games. It almost always will cause the athlete to freeze up and underperform, because they are playing for an audience of one.... and it is the wrong 'one'.

The real winners... free to win because they aren't afraid to fail. I call it "free to miss means you are free to make."

BAD MATCH-UP

Some teams lose because it is just a bad match-up...  Superman's kryptonite. It isn't always personnel, I'm usually taking here about scheme/philosophy. When we were a veer option team, we would always struggle with a good 3-4 'Okie' front with 4i tackles. You have to prepare for those bad match-ups...but you know it will be ugly! A win is a win!

TEAM DIS-UNITY

Over the years, those teams that had the habit of 'snatching defeat from the jaws of victory' were suffering primarily from a lack of unity. I identify two key factors in building team unity:

(1) PLAYER LEADERSHIP- Coaches have to identify the leaders in each grade and seek to develop and train that leadership over time. I believe that waiting until the senior year is too late. I also believe it is appropriate to give leadership training to all athletes- most of them will be leaders in their sphere of influence. But I see it all the time- if the coaches are the only positive and persevering voices in the locker room... the team has no real shot at becoming unified.

(2) TRUST- Deep trust is the bedrock of team unity. David Cutcliffe was the first person I ever heard say it this way "coaches trust players, players trust coaches, players trust players, coaches trust coaches". A loss will strain these relationships more than any other. A hard loss will divide a team more than anything. I always watch players deal with a loss and it is the 'locker room whispers' that say more to me than anything. It is a fragile time and can sink a season. As soon as the grumbling and murmuring and questioning begins in force- that team will cease to grow and improve and the decay will begin.

One last point about unity..... unity does not mean 'universal agreement with all decisions' but it is a willingness to trust each person to fulfill their role. I think a player can question me in terms of who I play, what I call, or even how we train. The key is that the difference in opinion doesn't erode our relationship. It also means there has to be a level of trust to discuss these things. I'm a little unusual in that I give senior players the right to bark (even at me) but I also demand that we meet after those moments and discuss it. I need to be humble enough to listen and then they need to be trusting enough to make a decision work. 

Some of my greatest conversations over the years has been when a QB sits down with me and really gets honest... "On 3rd and long, when you call (any play- screen, draw, post, dig, out, etc), I just don't like it."

And then, instead of being mad, I simply say, "why?" and then we have a terrific conversation. And we end with a promise, I have listened, "let's work on it, but when things are called in the game... do it with your honest best effort and don't worry about the results... keep competing".

So now we close; is there a theology of loss?

For a follower of Christ... yes there is. We trust God to use every failure to produce a fruit of growth. Even if we don't see a 'reason' we have to trust that there is an opportunity.

I don't have to LIKE LOSING to EMBRACE THE LOSS.

The long term loser has it the toughest... but also has the greatest chance to become the toughest winner when the circumstances change- EVERYONE LOVES A COMEBACK!

What we DON"T DO is pout, blame, quit, gripe.

Instead-  we get up, we keep moving forward, we learn, we help others

And we don't listen to the critics, the doomsdayers, the naysayers... 

Those people have never won anything significant in their entire lives.

Further reading on previous posts:

http://www.jayopsis.com/2011/11/how-football-pain-points-to-gospel.html

http://www.jayopsis.com/2005/10/we-lost-praise-lord.html

http://www.jayopsis.com/2009/08/going-for-two-and-providence-of-god.html

http://www.jayopsis.com/2021/07/the-only-way-to-lose-is-to-quit.html











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