An insightful perspective on how to transform losing into winning
Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the rather corny title
The past week or so has found me pondering the disappointment of the Proteas’ early exit from the recent World T20 Tournament. I hazard a guess that most other players and coaches (and fans) may have been doing similarly. Losing three out of three super eight games and bowing out before the semi-final stage was a far cry from what the team had planned for. As I sat in my lounge in Cape Town watching the winning West Indian team dancing that captivating Caribbean jig, it occurred to me that there were 14 other teams who also went home losers – or at least, not as tournament winners. That’s a whole lot of losing.
At the recent Olympic Games, just over 92% of the 10 960 athletes who took part did not win a medal. Except for the odd draw, every time two sporting teams meet, one will lose.
Forest loads of books and articles are written about how to win, yet seemingly none on losing. Strange when one considers how regularly losing happens.
As a recent World T20 loser, I thought I’d write about losing successfully. Not so that we can become good losers or better at losing, but so that we can optimise losing as a springboard out of the disappointment and back towards success.
Let’s start by looking at what effective losing is NOT.
It is not acting pissed off, walking around kicking things or throwing your bat when you come into the change room. It is not openly sulking or moping any longer than is naturally acceptable. It is not hibernating in your hotel room, drowning your sorrows in alcohol, or looking to rid frustrations through a fight or argument in a night club. Successful losing is not blaming others for your failure, nor is it making excuses or looking for justifications. Even though all of these happen, often.
It would have been easy and even justifiable for captain AB de Villiers to suggest that our players were tired from the 73 day tour to the UK (the team went directly from the UK tour to Sri Lanka for the World T20); that England’s seaming wickets were not good preparation for playing on the slow turners of the sub-continent; that we went in with a relatively new T20 team and hadn’t had time to really understand our best combinations; or that some key players never really fired. AB is smart enough to know not to use these cop-outs in media interviews, and is mature enough not to use any of them, or any other excuses, within the four walls of his hotel room or a team meeting.
What then is successful losing? When the losing captain in the post-match interview says, ‘We learnt a lot and will look to improve for next time’, what do they actually mean?
The Seven Habits
Of the seven habits of highly effective losers, the first four are about ‘managing the failure’; the second three are about ‘learning from the experience’.
Part 1: Managing the failure
Feel the disappointment. After the Proteas’ final game which signalled an early exit from the World T20, I found myself walking around a very solemn change room, feeling heavy in my body and experiencing what felt like regular waves of emptiness. My wandering included a few turns past the buffet table, more likely in an unconscious attempt to fill the emotional emptiness than to satisfy hunger. Some players sat vacantly staring into their kitbags at their feet; some were visibly tearful; others were walking around, either bumping into me at the buffet table or seemingly trying to walk away from the discomfort. Gary Kirsten was also wondering around the change room chatting to the odd player – coaches do not have designated seats – and each time he and I bumped into each other, we couldn’t find words – which is very unlike our relationship. I can only imagine what similarly disappointed fans were doing or saying back home in South Africa.
Habit one is to avoid acting out or displaying the disappointment, but to rather sit quietly and feel what it feels like. Find where in your body the sensation of disappointment, anger or frustration sits. These feelings, like all emotions, arise at the point where thought meets the physical body. It may arise as a sinking feeling in your stomach, a heaviness in your chest, tightness in the throat, heat in the forehead, etc. By simply acknowledging the feeling and paying attention to where it is in your body, it will naturally subside – you don’t have to ‘do’ anything about it.
It’s no different to when your romantic partner is emotional, all they need is hearing and acknowledgement and their emotional charge will naturally subside. When ignored, emotions can fester within our bodies, creating anxiety, low moods or low energy, whilst at any time they can unexpectedly rise up and emotionally hijack us when we least expect it. If emotions are continually suppressed or ignored they can lead to physical or emotional illness and in worst case scenarios to a stroke or cancer.
Sitting quietly and acknowledging emotions may be difficult for some. A macho tendency in sport is to act tough and ignore or try to escape the feeling, fearing that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. Thankfully the outmoded ‘cowboys don’t cry’ is fast losing credibility. The current Proteas’ culture encourages and allows players to be real and authentic. Being real and crying often represents a greater strength than false toughness.
Incidentally, this is also not the time for a coach to unleash his disappointment on the players. Sure Gary and the rest of us coaches wanted the team to win. That way we get to look and feel good. The ego gets a temporary boost. With too much attachment to ego, it happens that a coach may take his disappointment out on the team, chastising their performance while unconsciously blaming the players for not making him look or feel good. One only needs to watch the Proteas on TV to notice that Gary Kirsten never displays even the slightest amount of negative body language when a player makes an error. He is the same inside the change room. This is more difficult for some than others, but I believe not acting out disappointment or displaying anger when the chips are down is a very important leadership trait. Almost every player will agree.
To the many fans out here, I will not be so irksome as to advise you how to deal with the disappointment of your favourite team not delivering on your hopes and expectations. I am, however, moved to mention that even if your team loses, know that they still gave their 100%, even if on that day the 100% was only 80% of their best because they were physically or mentally exhausted, or that their 100% was marred by error, wrong decisions or poor execution of their skill. No player trains all week and then crosses the ropes with a plan to lose. As you will have personally experienced, everyone has bad days at the office, sportsmen too.
What does it mean that you lost? Humans are meaning-making machines. Is there a little voice in your head that says you are a failure, that you are not good enough, that you’re a choker, that you will never get it right? Do you think that others will judge you negatively, that you look bad, and that you are less because of the result? While this or similar chatter is likely to be going on somewhere in the background of most people’s mind, know that it is all invalid meaning-making ego-attachment, or in simpler English: it’s all bullshit.
So you lost. Losing or failing happens to anyone who tries, so welcome to the human race. All that losing means is that you lost. That is it. There is no, “therefore…”
Rather than seeking meaning, seek to accept that you failed or lost. It does not mean you have to give up caring, nor do you have to accept poor processes, these we will address later, but you do need to accept the result (unless you are able to go back and change it). Avoid buying into the small or egoic mind which needs to attach meaning to the failure, and needs to judge it (or yourself) through other people’s eyes.
3. Get perspective
How bad is the failure really? In the context of your career, you’ve failed before and you will fail again, many many times. How much does it affect important things like for example your health, family, friends, finances, spiritual journey, etc? What will the failure mean this time next year, or when you look back on it in five year’s time? Will it be engraved on your tombstone or mentioned at your funeral? Tomorrow morning, will it stop the sun rising or the birds chirping or prevent breakfast being on the table?
I remember in the late 1990’s when Jonty Rhodes was having a poor run of form and people were calling for him to be dropped. He was given out LBW in a key test match for a low score and through a poor umpiring decision. The situation left him uncharacteristically quiet and low in energy. At the end of that somewhat unsuccessful day for the team, the change room was equally sombre. Out the corner of my eye I noticed Jonty listening closely to the TV news. The sound was on very low. Inexplicably he bounced back into his usual energetic self and began to lift the spirits of the whole team. As I moved closer to find out what happened, I heard him say to Hansie Cronje, “I cannot believe that I’m sulking about being given out LBW when there are people dying in Bosnia”.
4. Support others
Support others; maybe it’s your team mate who is still out there doing battle, someone who may have had a worse day than you, or the guy next to you who is being too hard on himself. One of the major causes of depression in the world today is an over-focus on oneself, and one of the major sources of happiness and contentment is doing something positive for someone else. A recent rain-affected test match day saw a mixture of bored and frustrated players waiting in the change room for the rain to abate. At the same time four security guards were diligently following someone’s instruction to stand in the middle of the field, getting wet and cold due to a lack of suitable clothing or umbrellas. As the rain subsided, Morné Morkel made four cups of piping hot coffee and personally delivered them on a tray to the middle of the field. Just watching the gesture made me feel good.
So you lost. It’s past. Time to get out of the cesspool of self-pity that fills the hole of disappointment. If you want to find contentment, then do something good for someone else. Go into the kitchen and thank the kitchen staff for all their behind the scenes contributions; thank the scorers for all their dedication and acknowledge the importance of their work; tell the grounds men what a great job they are doing; share yourself with some young fans; or go and throw balls to one of the reserve batsmen who have been carrying drinks since the game started. Change your focus from self to other. Happy people (and celebrities) do not wait for unhappy events to do this; they naturally do it, most of the time.
Part 2: Learning from the experience
Now that you have acknowledged the feeling of failure and allowed it to subside to naturally healthy levels, you have accepted the loss as part of the journey, gained perspective and lifted your spirits by doing something for someone else; your mind should be sufficiently clear and ready to learn from the experience.
In the Proteas’ set-up, learning from the experience seldom if ever takes place on the day of the event. Because emotions may still be running high, we rather wait until the next day.
You can do this second part in a team environment, with your personal coach, or even by yourself.
5. Reflect on your preparation
Preparation is everything. The Proteas’ preparation is based on the simple concept of ‘studying the whole book for the exam’. Not many may know the feeling, but most can at least imagine how it must feel to go into an exam fully prepared! We believe that the better players prepare, the more they are able to trust their skill, have belief in their game plan and confidence in themselves. This in turn sets up the best chance for the player to access good decision-making, find calmness under pressure and, if lucky, to enter the elusive ‘zone’.
If you’re serious about wanting to succeed, then you can’t afford to cut corners on your preparation. Whatever your game. Better preparation is the first step towards better results.
Look back at your preparation and practice leading up to the event. On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is perfect preparation, how would you rate your overall efforts? Better still, be more specific. Make a list of the different areas of preparation and rate each one separately. Ours may be skills preparation, clarity on team and individual game plans, including having plan B, analysis of the opposition and the playing conditions and planning travel and meal times leading into the game.
Ask yourself honestly, to what degree do you balance the discipline of ‘studying the whole book for the exam’ vs the laziness of cutting corners?
There are two parts to this investigation of your preparation. First acknowledge and list all the important things you did well, and that you must remember to continue doing. If you rated your preparation 9/10, then first list what you did to get the 9. Next is to brainstorm the things you could possibly do better next time.
Reflecting on our preparation for the first super eight game vs Pakistan – it was a game we lost, and which we should have won comfortably. Paki were 76-7, needing 58 of 33 balls to win. Before the game we were happy that we had studied the whole book. Upon post-match reflection, one of the things that emerged was that we had studied the opposition players as well as we did for any other game, which included having a bowlers’ meeting where we analysed Pakistan’s top eight batsmen. The problem was, it was the number nine batsman who did the damage. From now on, we will study all eleven.
6. Reflect on the performance
Review your actual performance, in conversation, on video and/or via statistics. Again there are two parts. Firstly discuss and list all the important things you did well. Your disappointment may prevent seeing the positive, so you may need to force yourself to look harder than usual. Most times there will be many more positives than negatives – find them: they build confidence and are the foundations of future success.
The second part is to ask,’ If I had it all over again, what would I do differently?’ With the Proteas, we never ask what went wrong nor do we invest energy unpacking the mistake. Rather than ask ‘Why did you do that?’, we ask, ‘What would you do next time?’ This keeps the focus on the solution into the future (which we can do something about), not the problem of the past (which we can’t do anything about).
Focusing on the solution energizes, builds confidence and promotes learning. The outdated problem-analysis method of drilling down into what went wrong erodes confidence, increases anxiety, gets you stuck in what cannot be controlled and increases the fear of failure for the next time around. Focusing on solutions opens people’s listening and interest; focusing on problems creates ego defensiveness (or attack), closes ears and elicits blaming, excuses and justification.
The quality of learning and ideas emerging from habits five and six will be determined by the quality of the team’s learning environment or culture. The culture will be enhanced by a coach who is non-judgmental, inquisitive and skilful at listening and asking good questions, which will lead to players being more open, honest and to take responsibility for their part in the event. A fly on the wall of this teams meeting will notice players doing more talking than the coach in a team where this environment exists. In contrast, learning will be undermined by an over-controlling coach who operates a fear-based or punishment-based environment. It is likely that his players will be fearful of telling the truth, will tend to blame others, make excuses or remain silent. The same fly will notice that in this team, the coach does most, if not all, of the talking.
7. Commit to action
Along with your coach or a ‘learning partner’, decide on at least one way that you can improve your preparation (from habit 5), and at least one thing that you will do differently next time when the same or a similar situation arises (habit 6). Write them down. Apart from mentioning that we will analyse all eleven batsmen in future, this is too public a forum to discuss the specifics of what the Proteas will do to improve next time. Suffice to say that various learning conversations have taken place and ideas have been written down, all of which will be pursued.
Commit to action. What will you do to give your idea or plan the best chance leading to an improvement? I may ask players to write down their commitment and hand it to me. Writing something down forces us to get clarity and imbeds the idea in the brain more deeply than merely thinking it. Other times I will ask players if they are prepared to speak their commitment to action in front of the whole team. This is a brave move, but very powerful. If you decide to run a half marathon, there is a difference between thinking it for yourself versus telling four of your friends!
The final part of your commitment to action is to ask for support. Do you need your coach to spend extra time throwing to you, your parents to collect you a bit later, a team mate to hold you accountable, or someone to video you? Allan Donald takes a simple BlackBerry tablet to each practice, an iPad would also work, because bowlers often want to be videoed and to see immediate feedback. No one makes it to the top without lots of help from others. Don’t hesitate to ask -remember, when someone does something positive for you, there’s a good chance it will bring them joy.
The seven habits summarised:
1. Feel the feeling – find it in your body, acknowledge it, and watch it subside
2. Accept the result – it‘s part of sport and life. Assess the processes later
3. Gain perspective – it’s just a game. Losing hardly ever impacts the meaningful things in life
4. Support others – self-focus sinks, helping others uplifts
5. Reflect on preparation – what did you do well, what can you do better next time?
6. Reflect on the event – what did you do well, what will you do differently next time?
7. Commit to action – write it down, commit to action, ask for support
And thus are the seven habits of highly effective losers. Another day, another lesson, another chance to be humbled.