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Lessons in Losing

Note: This is an adapted version that ran previously in Coaching Management Football magazine


By Lem Elway

I don’t like to lose. I don’t even like to write about losing. But we’ve all been through it—having a losing season that doesn’t turn around no matter what you do.

In today’s world, with parents scrutinizing your every move, you can’t just grit your teeth through a bad year. In fact, a sub-par season needs to be handled with as much care—if not more—than a winning season.

Losses usually lead to questions and doubts: Should I alter my approach? Set new rules? Change my expectations? How do I keep athletes from getting frustrated? How do I keep them from losing confidence in me? Should I start playing younger players and looking ahead to next year? How do I respond to the complaints of parents and fans? And how do I make sure I don’t lose my job? Your answers and actions will make a huge difference in how things turn out. 

Check In With Yourself
It is important to realize that losing is not an indictment of your coaching ability. However, the way you react to losing can be. When losses pile up, your values and leadership will be exposed in a new way. How you respond to adversity will show those around you what you’re really about. 

That’s why the first step to take when you start losing is to review your coaching philosophy. If you have a written philosophy, re-read it. It will help remind you why you coach, and for most of us, it’s not only about winning. Staying true to your coaching philosophy is paramount to keeping the situation positive. 

Here are three critical areas that will define who you are during a losing season:

Consistent Expectations: During a losing season, it can be tempting to lower your standards for player behavior and work ethic. However, your players stand to gain nothing from you lowering your expectations. If you expect them to get to practice 10 minutes early every day when the team is winning, they should continue to do so when they’re losing. If you give out an award in practice every week to the player who works hardest, you should continue doing it, even if it feels like that hard work isn’t paying off.

Emotional Control: For both players and coaches, keeping emotions in check becomes more difficult when the losses keep coming. But this is the time when your leadership and maturity are most needed to set an example for your athletes. Take the time to go over your rules on behavior more frequently than usual, and don’t hesitate to quickly call players on any negative actions.

Staying Positive: It’s extremely easy to feel negative about your players and yourself when the losses pile up, and you need to fight this every step of the way. Every word out of your mouth and all your body language needs to convey that you have not lost hope.

It’s up to you to continue hustling, being enthusiastic, and bringing energy to practices and games. You must be as excited as ever when something good happens and present nothing but positive encouragement when things are not going right.

Examine your words and your tone of voice. Yelling is not an acceptable way to correct players, nor is foul language. Be a teacher and explain in a confident voice the mistake that was made. Every time you open your mouth, something constructive should come out. 

Evaluate Why You’re Losing
A key part of getting through a losing season is making sure athletes and parents do not lose confidence in you. The best way to ensure this is to continually evaluate why the team is losing and try to turn things around. 

Let your athletes and their parents know that you are constantly analyzing everything the team does to make whatever changes are needed. Break down every game and figure out what went wrong and what went right. Know what your athletes are doing well and what they need to improve on. Are there problems with concentration, technical skills, or communication? Have you neglected to teach them something? What will you do in practice to work on those problems?

I am a firm believer in the motto, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and when we’re losing, I ask myself if there is a weak link in our offense or defense. I use statistics and performance analysis to find areas that need improvement. Then, I work with those athletes to improve their skills, or I increase the number of athletes working at the position so I can make a change if necessary. Either the athlete gets better or I alter the lineup.

Throughout all these evaluations, I make sure I am communicating well. After games, I talk to players about what caused the team to lose and what we need to do to improve. I post production sheets on the locker room bulletin board so my athletes can see the facts of their performance, and I let them know that I am evaluating them on their hustle, teamwork, and attitude. 

I also ask them to evaluate themselves using one question: Did you give 100-percent effort today? If they can answer yes, then I feel we are achieving our goals. Each athlete needs to answer this question for himself, not for me or anyone else. 

At the same time, I emphasize that we’re all in this together. I try to create the feeling that everyone must learn from each other’s mistakes in a constructive manner. I also emphasize that comments on individual mistakes are not to be taken personally. I try to convey the idea that figuring out what’s going wrong and how to change it is a fun, dynamic process. 

Tough Decisions
Once you’ve determined why your team is losing, you may be faced with some difficult decisions. The most important thing is for you to be able to justify your actions in whatever you do, because sometimes, you’ll need to make tough decisions. Here are some big questions that can arise:

Individual vs. Team: What if there’s one athlete who is trying to play at the next level but the team is hindering him or her? I still base everything we do on team goals—not on the individual. I let my best players know that for them to get the recognition they’ve worked for, the team must be successful. If they continue to work hard on an individual basis, the team will succeed. The message from the coach must be that both goals are intertwined.

I also remind athletes that if they want to play at the next level, the college recruiters who come to watch them are watching everything they do. If they see an athlete only trying to impress the recruiter and not being a team player, that will not make a good impression.

Sitting Seniors: What if you decide that a senior on the team is a weak link? I always convey to seniors that they should be the strongest members of the team, but if they aren’t the best at their position, they should expect no favors. If an underclassman begins to play better than a senior, I will not hesitate to start the younger athlete. However, I always have factual information to support my decision and I often make it a gradual transition.

I’ve also learned that, during these changes, it is critical for a coach to protect the younger player from abuse from the older player. This can be an emotional time for a senior and his or her parents, who are faced with losing their role and stature on the team. This should never be underestimated, and the coach must communicate well and offer compassion and understanding. 

When Players Quit: Some players are not able to deal with losing and may decide to quit the team during the season. As a coach, be ready to deal with that possibility. Be aware some will go quietly, while others will make a scene. Some might also direct their animosity toward you. In this situation, always take the high road in your reaction. It is imperative that your team is ready to regroup quickly and move on with the players who have decided to remain.

If possible, I try to talk to every kid who quits to find out why. I think about their reason and if I, as a coach, feel I did something to make them quit, I try to change that part of my coaching. If the reasons for quitting come down to simply not having the right attitude, I wish them the best and tell them I’m glad they were part of the program.

Make It A Learning Experience
We’ve all heard the saying, “You can learn more from losing than winning,” but the operative word there is can—this learning doesn’t happen automatically. You need to seize the teachable moments of losing.

To start, I always ask my players how they want to be remembered when they leave high school. Do they want to be the athlete who fought through adversity, or the athlete who helped bring the team down? I explain that one’s true character comes out during tough times, and if they can hold their heads high while losing, they’ll know how to hold their heads high when they experience adversity in their adult lives. If they can hold onto a “never give up” attitude in sports, they will go far in anything they choose to do.

We also talk about how losing can bring us together or tear us apart. One season I started with seven seniors who had minimal varsity experience from the previous year. Over the season the players developed togetherness and support for each other, and the team won the league championship. The energy created by hard work fueled everything.

Communication is key to the learning process. I make sure there are times when athletes can voice their frustrations, either one-on-one with me or in a group. They need to be able to express themselves, and I let them know they can talk to me to let off steam. At the same time, they know that they will be held accountable for what they say to the whole team.

What do I do when an individual athlete or an entire team has endured a particularly dismal outing? I believe it is good for athletes to face the reality of “being down,” especially when their performance has created the situation. If young people can be held accountable and accept responsibility for their part in a loss, they are learning a wonderful life lesson. If they can say, “I wasn’t giving 100-percent effort today” or “I botched the play,” they can figure out how to change their attitude or skills to help make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Through it all, I always try to teach the ultimate lesson—that sports are fun, no matter what the score is. I always want to accentuate the positives and show interest in the present. We laugh and joke every day. Win or lose, you need to keep true to your philosophy and your role as a mentor of young people. 


Lem Elway is a retired teacher and coach in the state of Washington and author of several books on coaching, including The Coach's Administrative Handbook: How to Deal With the Key Issues Affecting Coaching, available on Amazon.

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