Thursday, September 26, 2013

Losing Is Painful but it is not Necessarily Bad

"Sometimes the pain is extremely intense, because the fiasco is like a small death."--Almira Skripchenko-Lautier, Europe Women's Champion, answering a question about defeats.

"I was completely winning. If I don't kill myself tonight I'm gonna to live a thousand years."--Ivan Sokolov, after his draw with Hikaru Nakamura at the 2013 Tata Steel tournament.

There is no better proof that chess is a violent game than GM Sokolov's curt comment after a draw--a draw, mind you, not a loss; if squandering even half a win can prompt thoughts of suicide, it is clear that throwing away a full point is very devastating both psychologically and physically. Chess players will understandably go to great lengths to avoid such devastation and suffering. It is tempting and seductive to think that if you are smart enough or tough enough or work hard enough then you can control all possible outcomes in sport and/or life but the reality is that even at the height of your powers you can only control, at most, one side of the equation: your thoughts/actions. You cannot control the outcome, though of course proper thinking and disciplined action provide the greatest likelihood of obtaining the desired result.

Even the most dominant players and teams do not win every single game or match. Losing is inevitable but even though losing is painful it is not necessarily bad. It is very important to develop a mindset that enables you to turn failure into success and that views a loss as a challenging stepping stone, not a permanent stumbling block.

However, that does not mean that one should receive an award just for showing up. Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson decry the "Trophy-Industrial Complex" that provides awards merely for participating. Merryman declares

It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.

If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?

If I were a baseball coach, I would announce at the first meeting that there would be only three awards: Best Overall, Most Improved and Best Sportsmanship. Then I’d hand the kids a list of things they’d have to do to earn one of those trophies. They would know from the get-go that excellence, improvement, character and persistence were valued.
Losing hurts, but in the moments following a defeat a true competitor does not want a trophy but rather an opportunity to learn from past mistakes in order to do better in future games; an introspective person learns much more from his losses than he learns from his wins and he studies his losses very thoroughly instead of being satisfied to relive his wins: one image that comes to mind in this regard is Jerry Rice saying that if he caught 10 passes and dropped one then after the game he would focus much more on the lone drop than on the many successful plays. Paraphrasing Vince Lombardi, the idea is to chase perfection because, even though it can never be captured, during that pursuit we can obtain excellence.

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