"I want my team to lose today."
This isn't the kind of thing you expect a coach to say to you when you're shaking his hand over top of home plate. But Wally wasn't kidding -- he wanted his girls to lose. In fact he wanted his girls to lose big, and he thought our team had the best shot at doing it.
I looked to Quentin (head coach of my daughter’s team) to see his reaction. He just kept shaking Wally's hand until he got more information out of him.
Wally explained. "These girls have one helluva streak going right now and they're way too pleased with themselves. They play great ball when they’re winning, but they need to have a bad day. So if you get a chance to open up a lead don't hesitate – I need a teachable moment."
Two hours later it had been delivered. Wally's team was flattened, getting quiet when they fell behind by five, frustrated when they fell behind by ten, collapsing at fifteen. As the score spiraled down their play followed it into the hole. Stupid mistakes piled one atop the other as even simple things became hard in their frustration. Their game disintegrated, and as it did their failure became more and more inevitable.
Wally was pleased.
Not many coaches show up Saturday morning hoping for a big loss. But Wally is comfortable with his place in the world and he knows why he’s at the ball field. It isn’t about softball. It’s about growth, and that big loss delivered a powerful lesson: sometimes things don’t go your way. More importantly: when things don’t go your way, don’t panic. It’s a ball game, no one is going to die, no one is going to lose any money. Keep your head; keep playing; learn. Figure out how to fix things when they go wrong. From adversity comes maturity.
Wally’s lesson isn’t about humility; it’s about learning to stay in the game when failure enters the room, and it’s something that most people aren’t very comfortable with. We all prefer to win, but like it or not failure is part of life. Ask someone on the top of the heap and they’ll tell you about failure aplenty -- they’re successful because they overcame it. Failure is reality, and learning how to operate in its presence is about as valuable a lesson as you’ll ever learn.
The most fundamental concept taught by competition of any sort is how to keep your head when under stress. With four kids and a hundred games on the shelf I get asked what games are educational and the answer is pretty damn simple – virtually all of them. With the exception of a few cooperatives each teaches this fundamental lesson -- shit happens and you’re going to need to deal with it for the rest of your life. Stop stressing about it and find ways to make it work.
Moms and dads don’t want to hear that these days. They think failure is a scarring experience. But you know what? Failure is essential. Failure is nurturing. Failure teaches us how to deal with adversity. When Mom and Dad set their egos aside and stop looking at failure as something to shelter their kids from there are lessons to be learned. Importantly, these lessons are best learned at an age where the stakes are very low. To an eight-year-old losing $9 in a poker game feels like a trip off the edge of the Earth. It’s not, but the kid doesn't know that. The next morning he wakes up much wiser. He survived, and that $9 lesson will affect how he views his hard-earned dollars for the rest of his life.
Take joy from your wins. Take lessons from your losses.
Victory is sweet but big lessons come from failure. More specifically, they come from a rational assessment of why you failed. That “rational assessment” part is key. You need to be able to come to terms with losing, and after that spend the time to coldly evaluate what went right and what went wrong. That's how you get better. But that can only happen after failing fifty or a hundred times in a safe place -- the gaming table, the ball field, the classroom. Safely experiencing failure breeds comfort with it, and that’s an important part of the lifelong learning process.
Don’t get me wrong – winning is a lot of fun and I say go for it. But when you become comfortable with failure it stops looking like catastrophe and starts looking like opportunity. It’s when you can start finding ways to stretch your game. It’s when you squeeze a run at home plate. It’s when you draw the throw to sow chaos in the infield. It’s when you find ways to “manufacture” runs instead of having them fall in your lap. And when you attain a mindset that allows that kind of analysis while you’re getting crushed, you just might learn how to come back from a 15 run deficit. That’s why we play.