Growing up, I was a basketball player. Beginning in fourth grade, I played for my school and travel teams, practiced on the basketball court that my dad paved in part of the backyard to create, and hung out with my cousin Scott at camps held at the small Catholic college where he coached the men’s basketball team. I loved the game. But other than an ill-fated stint coaching my friend’s little sister’s third-grade team while I was in college (yes, I made a girl cry), my basketball career was over after I walked across the stage at my high school graduation.
Scott collapsed and died in the middle of his team’s practice in 2010. I was devastated for my family and the young men on his team. Watching all of the tributes to Scott on the news and ESPN made me realize how much I missed the game.
A few years later, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to coach my middle son and his buddies on the basketball court.
In first and second grade, they were adorable, running in a pack after the ball as only small children playing organized sports can do. In third grade, we had a really decent team that was competitive in every game hosted by our local YMCA. I was over-the-moon excited about coaching them on our small Catholic school’s fourth-grade team and was only mildly disillusioned when we only won two games that year. Until the following year, when we lost every game. Badly. And the following year, when we again lost every game. Badly.
After every blowout, I agonized about what went wrong long after the boys even remembered what the score had been.
I spent hours planning practices, looking up new drills and plays for us to do, and trying to teach fundamentals. With every practice, I saw heart, dedication, and improvement, so why couldn’t we get it together and play games competitively?
This year was a little better. We weren’t blown out of most of our games. We even won a few and lost a heartbreaker by only three points. I’ve had a chance to step back and take a good look at the boys who keep coming back year after year, despite the fact we have a less-than-stellar record. I’ve always wondered about these boys and why they’d want to subject themselves to this every November through February.
And if I could get a bunch of 13-year-old boys to grunt out an answer, I think it would be that they have fun. They all get along. They celebrate each other’s tiniest victories on the court. They giggle together and have inside jokes. I listen to them after games, at practices, and in the car, and they get over losing very quickly—much more quickly than their coach, I am ashamed to say.
Nobody talks about losing, no matter what sport is being played.
No coaches own up to having a losing season. Nobody posts on Facebook that their team got beat by 30 points that day. We only see the first place trophies, the perfect 10s, the gold medals. Losing is something that is hidden, with the losing coaches and players going home to lick their wounds by themselves. Maybe it’s time we started talking about losing and what benefits can be had for a kid on a losing team.
The benefits I’ve seen for my son and the rest of his teammates are many. Camaraderie. Excellent sportsmanship. Support for each other. Exercise and a great level of physical fitness. And finally, an incredible sense of humor and resilience.
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And what benefits can there be for the coach of a losing team? Learning self-control and patience. Persevering. Giving up some hyper-competitiveness and focusing on the fun the boys are having, the friendships they have made, and the type of character they are forming.
I still want to compete. I still want to win. I still want to do right by the boys and teach them the game of basketball. That part of me is ingrained and will probably never go away. However, I am just now beginning to embrace the joy of losing.