Why losing can be good for us

·5-min read
Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths
Photo credit: Laurence Griffiths

We were all there. On Sunday night, England were defeated by Italy in the finals of UEFA Euro 2020 by a whisker. The stricken faces and collective grief of players, as a long held dream died on the pitch, was deeply upsetting - as were some of the uglier reactions from racist fans. Manager Gareth Southgate, who steered the team so close to victory said, at that moment the pain was too raw, but in time, the work would start again. The World Cup is only next year.

In football, where the stakes are high, it’s all about winning and losing. But what can we learn from sport about the value of defeat? Loss and failure are a constant thread throughout life but not one we’re discouraged to dwell on. In a culture that favours winners, setbacks have become associated with negative connotations we’d prefer to avoid, those of being not good enough, inferior or unworthy. Donald Trump would make his forefinger and thumb into the shape of an ‘L’ and whisper the world loser with venom. That which he despised was also his greatest fear. Well, he lost in the end, too. And, that’s life.

At school sports days, children are now told ‘everyone’s a winner’ and garlanded with stickers and medals simply for participating. And it’s true that taking part is what counts. But this well-meaning adult intention to protect young ones from painful feelings only stalls the inevitable. In 2016, sports journalist, Sam Weinman wrote Win at Losing: How our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains partly inspired by the ‘bleak’ reaction of his children when dealing with losing a hockey match or messing up a maths paper. He interviewed a number of high-profile individuals known for their significant track record of failure before breaking through and writes: “uninterrupted success is a fantasy… Losing is not only something we should tolerate but that we need.”

Photo credit: Paul Ellis - Pool
Photo credit: Paul Ellis - Pool

Rather than avoidance, processing the reality of defeat is an essential part of growing up, learning and living. Before we learn to walk, we fall repeatedly. Before we talk, we struggle with the complexities of forming words. Prior to learning any skill, from driving to riding a bike, swimming or yoga, we must practice, struggle and fail many times. Albert Einstein recognised that “failure is success in progress”. Yet, this can be a difficult concept when we’re surrounded by the apparently effortless success of celebrities and superstars.

We perceive life’s winners as the person with the most followers, biggest salary, most expensive car, perfect relationship or glamorous job. On social media, people curate their most winning imagery. Most ‘liked’ are exotic holidays, beatific children, artfully created tablescapes - anything associated with achievement. In this illusionary gallery of perfectionism, the reality of arguments, daily conflict and everyday stresses are revised or denied. The struggles of simply maintaining a relationship, bringing up a child or caring for an elderly parent are generally not discussed. If we’re struggling to learn a skill, master a new IT system or balance work-life and home, they form part of a silent internal struggle.

If we look closer at the accounts of successful individuals, there’s typically a much longer backstory of struggle and failure. JK Rowling was turned down by countess publishers before Harry Potter was signed up. Pulp toured as an unknown band for over a decade before eventually being signed. Baseball player, Michael Jordan remembers his journey, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career, I’ve lost 300 games, 26 times. I’ve been trusted to the game’s winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed.” In the creative arts, photographer, Nick Knight talks openly about the importance of failure in his creative process and not being afraid of it, “That’s what creation is. Every time I take a picture I have to go through a series of failures to get there.”

On Sunday night, as Italy held the trophy high, their spirits were raised and egos pumped full, but it would have been the England team who would learnt the most. Failure is never the end, simply a temporary setback. Unless of course you stop trying and exit the game entirely. As the American baseball player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, “You can’t win unless you learn how to lose.” If we replace the word losing with learning, there would be less to dread around the idea. Fear of failure can be an inhibiting force, preventing us from taking part and potentially stifling our potential or progress. For those with the right mindset, losing has many advantages. It can build character, resilience, determination and empathy. Whether it’s an actual competition, personal or professional battle, losing is the best teacher.

HOW TO LOSE WELL:

  • In the moment, feel the emotion and pain. Remember the feeling. You can draw on it at a later date.

  • Be kind. Speak to and comfort yourself as a friend would.

  • Reach out and take support from loved ones. The enduring image of the UEFO Euro 2020 finals was the human shield formed around the players who missed their penalties.

  • When the hurt has subsided and the mind can be objectively engaged, reflect on what happened. What can be learnt? What can be improved? How might you change your approach, attitude, technique?

  • Seek feedback from those you trust and listen to their advice with an open mind.

  • Try again. Winston Churchill famously said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure with enthusiasm’.

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