I hope they lose.
Oh, not every game. Not even most of them. But as my wife and I prepare for another season of coaching grade-school basketball — this year it’s fifth grade — I hope our boys lose. Occasionally.
That probably sounds unusual coming from a coach. It probably sounds unusual coming from anybody in any endeavor in our society, when a promise that we “are going to be so sick and tired of winning” is regarded as virtue.
Be it sports or business or politics, it seems the emphasis on winning has increased since my childhood. We live, after all, in an era when “Second place is first loser” and “Nobody remembers who finished second” are considered T-shirt-worthy mantras.
Why, a quick Google search of “sports slogans” comes up with purported gems such as “Winning is a habit, success is a choice” and “Practice winning every day” and “Dedication + Motivation = Success.” Not that there is anything wrong with those. It’s just that, when it comes to fifth-grade basketball, I prefer, “Success is a journey, not a destination.”
We’re talking about 10-year-olds, after all, and there is something inherently self-defeating about measuring yourself in wins and losses at a young age. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Well, Churchill gets credit for saying it; according to QuoteInvestigator.com, he never made the remark. But regardless of who came up with them, the words should be embraced. There is value in losing, and there are lessons that cannot be learned from winning all the time.
Losing once in a while in sports — instead of something that truly matters — can be particularly valuable. Failure leads to self-reflection and self-motivation while providing the roadmap to eventual success.
As a recovering sports editor (and the husband of a coach), I can attest that many people have little understanding of that fact. I have seen far too many parents choose a high school for their children because of its athletic program; or try to get a high school coach fired; or demand media coverage because “they’re trying to earn a scholarship.” All of which tend to bastardize the inherent value of sports.
Oh, it’s not that this mentality is limited to athletics. We all know that parent who will email the teacher to complain about their 9-year-old’s grade on a test; and if you don’t know them, you are them. Don’t be like that.
But when it comes to sports, the lessons can be particularly impactful. Athletics are inherently competitive and provide resolution at the end of the day — the scoreboard tells you who scored more points, and then you go out for ice cream. Winning is more fun; but losing can be more instructive.
That is what I hope our fifth-graders learn this season. Well, that and the fact that merely showing up does not warrant a trophy — another lesson that seems lost these days. As author Ashley Merryman wrote for The New York Times a while back: “The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.”
Yet one of the more depressing traits of youth sports is that everybody gets a trophy or a medal for participating. Years later, they enter the real world and are surprised to learn it doesn’t work that way. I have been in journalism for 30 years, and not once has my editor given me a trophy for showing up at work.
All of which brings us to the point of coaching fifth-grade basketball: Winning is not defined by the scoreboard. Sometimes, I am guessing, we will play teams more talented than we are. But if we play well and improve, that is a victory. If we meet a lesser team and win despite playing poorly, that is not something to celebrate. The point of practice or games is to get a little better than you were the day before and to learn something about yourself.
And sometimes, losing provides the best path for that long journey to success.