If you know me, you know I can be a little competitive. Losing is not something that I do well or particularly gracefully. Example: I can be irrationally upset after losing board games.
Losing is an art.
It’s ridiculous, I know. But there’s something inside my mind that clicks on and doesn’t stop whenever game-play is involved. “Winning is the only option.” It’s a sick but driving mantra that plays over and over and over in my head.
When I was growing up, I was lucky to be on a fairly winning soccer team. We often won. We sometimes lost. And after losing, I would be upset. Frustrated. Sometimes said things to referees that I shouldn’t have (and of course was scolded afterwards by my coach). The soccer team I coached in Connecticut lost one pre-season game. We never lost another game after that. The point being that I’ve always been competitive. Sports. Video games. Grades. Life. I like to win.
I like to win so much that I don’t even know how to begin a story about loss. A story about loss that ultimately turns to…something else entirely.
Our school soccer team, the VSBS Tigers, has not won a single game against another team. (In fact, only half of the team experienced a win at all this year, when we had a big inner-squad scrimmage one afternoon.) And when I say that we haven’t won, it’s important to note that the scores are never close. There’s no slaughter rule in soccer, so our games don’t end early just because it’s a blow-out. We’ll score a few goals and the other team will score a multitude. Three, four, five, thirty-eight times the number of goals we’ve scored. No exaggeration. Our last game ended with a defeating score of 38-1. That can’t even be made up.
These losses aren’t easy to swallow. They aren’t easy because our kids leave the field disappointed. Upset. Some more than others. A few have the same competitive spirit that I do and it is difficult for them to even remain level-headed in games. They aren’t easy because they come with a sense of great failure: that I failed myself, that I failed the other coach, that I failed the players. Losing isn’t easy.
There are a multitude of reasons that we can attribute these losses to, none of which are particularly important. What is important is that eventually, once the sting of a terrible upset has worn off, we are able to reflect on our weakness and strengths. We take our mistakes and develop drills to address them. We take our small victories and celebrate them.
It is these celebrations that keep us going. Completing a perfect give-and-go, just like we practiced. Stringing together multiple, on-the-ground, simple passes. The goalie making an incredible save. Our smallest player faking-out a much bigger, much older opponent. Successful slide tackles.
A goal, any goal, all goals are celebrated like they are the winning World Cup goal.
The game this past weekend, the one with the 38-1 final score, was difficult. It was difficult because we thought that going into the game we would be fairly evenly matched against the other team. We thought we had a shot at being competitive against them. We made a lot of assumptions based on age and size of players, not thinking about their skill level or experience compared to ours.
The first half was riddled with mistakes. Not marking players, general confusion on the field, flustered passes and frustrated plays were made. We were subbing kids out left and right to talk to them about everything we’d practiced, but nothing was working. They were making the same mistakes on the field. Over and over and over. There are few things more frustrating for a coach than talking to a player, giving explicit directions, and then having the player not act on those directions. Halftime could not have come soon enough for any of us.
We were able to talk to them as a team about playing with heart. With courage. With force. We showed them strategies for finding their marks before the play even started. I drew pictures. Something happened.
A third grader, Jonathan Alexander, had a solid first half (he is our right-side defender). But still, he came off the field at halftime frustrated. Barely participated in our conversations, his back to the team and to us for most of the 10 minutes. We were about to start the second half and I saw two players with their arms around him. I walked over, and he was crying. I could tell he was trying to stop the tears, but they just wouldn’t end. I asked him if he wanted to sit down for a few minutes. He said yes, coming off the field for the first time all game. He sat, drank some water, gathered his thoughts and his energy, and of course, ate a snack from his mom’s bag.
“Whenever you’re ready Jonathan, tell me and you’re back in the game.” A few minutes later, he came up to me, tapped my arm, and nodded. He’s a boy of very few words.
He was ready.
I have never, ever seen Jonathan Alexander play the way that he did in the second half. He was running hard. He was using his body. He was defending the entire back half of the field by himself while the rest of the team tried to score a goal. He shut down the other team’s best player time after time after time. He applied everything we’ve been doing in practices to the game. He was thinking on his feet. He worked the hardest I’ve seen any player of ours work. He played like an animal and it was unbelievable to watch.
He left his heart, his soul, his everything on the field on Saturday.
When I think about it, everyone did. Everyone left everything on the field. In the second half, it looked like an entirely different team was playing. They were marking up. They were aggressive, throwing their bodies around. Their defensive playing was on-point. They had so many more chances on goal. They were talking to each other on the field. They were shutting the other team down more times than not.
They never lost heart. They never stopped playing. They never gave up. They were getting crushed. And yet they kept playing with courage. With force. With the gusto and energy I’d expect from a winning team.
In the end, the score didn’t matter. The one goal that our team scored was the greatest moral victory of them all. They did it. One was enough to allow the players to leave with their heads held high.
I had a weekend to reflect about the game. To make decisions and choices and plans about the future. I was nervous about Monday. That players would start doubting us. Us as coaches. Us as players. Us as a team. I was anxious that questions and concerns would be running rampant through their minds. I checked each boy as he got on the bus to see if he had his tacos (soccer cleats).
They all did.
Losing every game is hard. But they haven’t lost everything. Not one single player has lost his love for the game. No one has lost their drive, their motivation, or their passion. And that is better than winning every single game. (Well…almost.)
I’m thankful every day for my kids, but especially after this weekend. They taught me an invaluable lesson. My students taught me the art of losing. As it turns out, some things are more important than winning.
Front row: Melanie, Jonathan Alexander, Jefry, Jose Luis, Jefry
Back row: Coach Santi, Dorian, Mario, Carlos, Hector, Manuel, Coach Caroline