Should every player hate to lose?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May/June, 2014.

During my first season as an assistant coach for a junior-college women’s basketball team, the head coach remarked that it was hard to coach a team and to win when the coaches cared so much more about every game than the players. It was an accurate statement; our livelihoods were invested in the team and the games, whereas few players had aspirations of playing basketball beyond junior college. When the game ended, we sat in the office ruminating over what went wrong; I left the gym and headed across the street to a pizza place and went over the game in my head. The players left the game and went to parties, the movies, or the library to study. In no way did I believe that the players did not play hard; they did. They gave a full effort when they were on the court. However, win or lose, the game did not change their behaviors once the game ended and they left the gym, whereas the game lingered and affected the coaches long after the final whistle.

During a February podcast with ESPN’s Andy Katz, University of West Virginia Men’s Basketball Head Coach Bob Huggins said that the decline of playground hoops has reduced the number of guys who hate to lose. His comment was tweeted and re-tweeted by many high-school and college coaches who nodded their heads with agreement. It is easy for adults to chastise millennials for not being more like them. In the February 2014 Wired, Clive Thompson wrote, “The real pattern here isn’t any big cultural shift. It’s a much more venerable algorithm: How middle-aged folks freak out over niggling culture differences between themselves and twentysomethings.” As Thompson wrote, every generation finds something about the younger generation to criticize.

As a coach, I understand Huggins’ point. Winning and losing every possession or every game is more important to a coach than to a player. However, that does not mean that the players do not care or do not work hard. They are different, and in many ways, their differences are positives, not negatives.

Several years ago, I coached high school junior varsity girls basketball. The girls played hard. They competed. We won the league championship. However, on the bus ride to and from the games, there was not a word spoken about basketball or the game. Their focus was on academics and boys. The majority of the team strove to attend a U.C. or an Ivy League school, and basketball was something to put on their resume more than it was a passion of theirs. They did not have the hate-to-lose attitude, but they had fun, played hard, won a majority of their games, and kept the losses in perspective. Isn’t that what sports should be like? I was not remorseful that they did not care about each game as deeply as I did; I was somewhat envious of the breadth of their interests, curiosity, and intelligence. They were so much more mature and evolved than I was at that age.

In the eighth grade, I played basketball for my elementary school in the Sacramento Parochial Athletic League (PAL). Similar to the sentiment expressed by Robert Duval’s character in Kicking & Screaming, for 7th and 8th graders attending Catholic schools within the Sacramento diocese, PAL basketball was the big time. We won the PAL City Championship as 8th graders, but my two clearest memories have nothing to do with the friendships with teammates who who had been my classmates for eight years or the pride of wining the championship. Instead, I remember two silly, in retrospect, incidents.

In the second round of a tournament, we played a team that we should have crushed. We won by roughly four points in a game that was never really in doubt, but was much closer than it should have been. We had two 7th graders on our team. At the buzzer, one 7th grader celebrated the win in the middle of the court. The other starting guard and I grabbed him and chastised him for celebrating, essentially saying something to the effect that we expected to win these games, and we would not celebrate until we won the championship. We warned him not to embarrass us again. The second memory happened in a subsequent tournament. We were struggling in a game. Another teammate and I argued during a dead ball, and our other teammates had to break us up as we shoved each other. I hated to lose.

When coaches talk with remorse about the absence of players who hate to lose, is this the behavior that they desire?  Is the goal of sports participation to develop this hate-to-lose attitude? Are those the behaviors that make one a winner?

In The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, Jim Afremow wrote, “If you play not to lose, you are placing yourself in a no-win situation; there is everything to lose and nothing to be gained. If you play to win, you are placing yourself in a no-lose situation; by not overcoming the challenge at hand, all you can say is that you did not achieve today’s goal” (p.65). Whereas this statement would appear to represent the right attitude, many coaches object to the sentiment. In basketball (and many sports), AAU is viewed as a problem because coaches believe the never-ending games allow players to reorient their goals, which, in their minds, makes losing less painful.

Most current college coaches grew up at a time when a considerable portion of one’s basketball was played on the playground rather than on organized teams. In 8th grade, I played only 21 organized games, but I spent countless hours playing pick-up games at recess, parks, and gyms. Playground or pick-up games are credited with the development of this hate-to-lose attitude because a loss meant sitting out, whereas the winners stayed on the court to play the next game. Depending on the playground and the time of day, there could be a 3-4 game wait for the next game, which could equate to more than an hour of waiting. Today, players play in AAU tournaments virtually every weekend, and regardless of whether or not they win their first game, they have another game scheduled a couple of hours later. Many youth players play more than 21 games in just over a month. The theory espoused by Huggins and others suggests that the playground developed the hate-to-lose competitiveness to avoid sitting out and waiting for the next game, whereas today’s tournament atmosphere ensures that there is always a next game, win or lose.

Like the coaches, I lament the days of yore with playgrounds filled with people of all ages playing pick-up basketball or soccer. I miss the days in my early 20s when I could show up at a random park around 4:00P.M. on a weekday and be assured that I could get into a game. I am certain that these experiences in my childhood developed in me the hate-to-lose attitude, but that is not the reason that I lament the lack of playground basketball. The lack of people playing is lamentable because it is a result of early specialization, a sign of poor health, and a devaluing of physical activity and recreation. The lack of these developmental opportunities for younger children means missed opportunities for development.

Huggins’ argument is constructed on a vision of sports as a competitive environment, and the remorse is expressed by those whose livelihood’s depend upon producing results. Of course, a coach hates to lose; each loss brings him or her one loss closer to unemployment. For the athletes, however, is it a bad thing that they are able to get over a loss?

Dr. Martin Toms, a senior lecturer in sports coaching in the U.K., continually emphasizes the Bio-Psycho-Social impact of youth sports. Developing competitiveness in a young athlete is only one potential outcome of participation. For those who may go on to become elite athletes, it may be of primary importance. For those who may have to fight for jobs or college admissions, it may have some positive transfer to other aspects of one’s life. However, developing a hate-to-lose attitude is not the primary outcome of youth sports participation, whether structured or unstructured.

Whereas the loss of free play is concerning, we should not remorse over the missing hate-to-lose attitude. As Afremow wrote, “Playing so as not to lose is rooted in fear. Playing to win is based in confidence. Playing so as not to lose is about merely surviving. Playing to win is about thriving. Playing so as not to lose makes for stressful moments. Playing to win creates special moments” (p.66). Should youth sports, whether organized or on the playground, create an environment of fear, surviving, and stressful moments, or an environment of confidence, thriving, and special moments?

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