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How to cope with losing the game

how to losing the game

Watching Liverpool agonisingly lose the Premier League title last Sunday reminded me of the psychology behind winning and losing.

Just like in life, losing the game can bring a barrage of uncomfortable feelings. How to cope with losing the game is important because it affects your health and performance. The point is this: don’t ignore the player’s feelings and brush them off as if “it’s just a game”. When people go through difficult times in life, one of the worst things to do is to respond as if they’re overly emotional or wrong for feeling the way they do. It’s the same in football. Rather, help the player who has lost by giving them tools to process their emotions and to discover how they will respond. The question is always, “What will you do about it?”

how to losing the game

Emotional Intelligence and processing

Losing the game is a great opportunity to learn how to have a disciplined mind. When you can stop yourself from spiraling down into negative thinking, you can prevent anxiety, depression, and a number of other mental health experiences. Learning how to process emotion and respond, not react, is an invaluable life skill. How do we process well? As part of the answer to that question, we believe there is a lot more to IQ, or “intelligence quotient” than one’s ability to solve problems, use logic, and grasp or communicate complex ideas. We believe in Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences as a better understanding of intelligence.

The last decade’s obsession with EI or Emotional Intelligence has brought this concept to the public’s attention, but rather than sticking with one overall category of EI, Gardner breaks this intelligence down further. EI refers to your ability to recognize and regulate emotion and to use social awareness in problem-solving. Gardner rather explains that some people are more proficient in intra-personal intelligence while others are more proficient in extra-personal intelligence.

By observing which of the 9 intelligences your child thrives in, you can more readily help them to process their emotions. If their major strength doesn’t lie within the EI categories, you might need to spend more time helping them process emotion. Spending time together with your young athlete will do the world of good.

EI is key in responding to failure and we believe it’s often dependent on your mindset. A mindset develops from thoughts, not just feelings. Teaching players how to use their minds well will set them up to be emotionally intelligent.

Never play the blame game: it works against a player’s progress on, and off, the field

The blame game is a mindset that must be eradicated. When a player blames another player, the referee, the coach, or their parents, for losing the game they are essentially saying their success in life is dependent on others. Those who are successful (in whatever terms you count as success) are the ones who see factors that hinder them as internal factors. Internal processes encompass their choices, responses, fears, emotional stability, mental health, etc.

For the successful person, external factors such as the weather, other people’s actions, laws, governing bodies etc. are all seen as experiences set up to bring about their full potential.

For the successful player, it is how they respond to those external factors that bring about their success. They work on the internal processes rather than trying to change the external influences.

They see external influences as learning points, springboards, opportunities, or challenges that make them stronger. They never see themselves as the victim – even if they are being treated badly, even in losing the game; they choose to see themselves as the overcomer that responds well.

Successful players respond with forgiveness and encouragement to their teammates (especially the ones who are being blamed by others). This positive mindset, that takes responsibility and avoids blame, helps them to continue to pursue their potential despite their current circumstances.

Normalise the present failure

Children, adults, and every player involved in a competitive sport will experience losing the game at some point. Once you’ve accepted failure as a natural and vital part of the learning process and talked through or encouraged your child to process their frustration, anger, or disappointment, etc., it’s important to normalise loss. Help them to understand that even the greatest athletes in the world make mistakes, fail, and experience losing the game sometimes. It’s how we respond to failure that counts.

Demonstrate a growth mindset

Praise the process and the effort the player has put in, not just the outcome. Carol Dweck who speaks about a growth vs fixed mindset had a life-changing experience as a sixth-grader at P.S. 153 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Her teacher that year sat the children in the class according to their IQ. Dweck admittedly occupied seat number one. “But it was an uncomfortable thing because you were only as good as your last test score,” she said. “I think it had just as negative an effect on the kids at the top [as those at the bottom] who were defining themselves in those terms.”

When we define players by their last loss or win for that matter, we are defining them incorrectly. Their identity should not depend on their last game or performance. From Dweck’s 6th grade experience, she became fascinated with intelligence and realised that IQ tests are not the only way to measure it. “I also became very interested in coping with setbacks, probably because being in that classroom made me so concerned about not slipping, not failing,” she said.

Dweck believes that people’s self-theories (their truths that sit in their subconscious) about intelligence have a profound influence on their motivation to learn or improve at anything in life.

As parents, coaches, teachers, or influencers, we must help young athletes to understand the importance of a growth mindset. Players who are motivated will improve.

“What was important was the motivation,” Dweck said. “The students were energized by the idea that they could have an impact on their mind.”

Be a good role model

Children imitate. How do you respond to yourself when you fail or make a mistake? It’s important to demonstrate constructive behaviour and language when it comes to playing board games, watching your sports team lose a game, or when you fail at something. Be kind to yourself because it gives permission for your child to do the same when they mess up. Watch what you say about others when they make a mistake or fail because they’ll assume you would say the same to them if they make a mistake or fail.

Authentically encourage

Be real with your child, because they know when you’re faking your encouragement. If they’re not excellent at the game, don’t congratulate them for being excellent. Be truthful and point out what was great, like their courage to try, or their improvement in a specific area.

Mind your self-talk

Watch out for players speaking down to themselves or others – whether they’re brilliant at football, or just starting out. Words are actions waiting to happen, so if they’re saying, “I have no talent, I’m a terrible player,” correct them! It might sound something like encouraging them about a recent win they experienced (whether in football or another area of life), and then reminding them that it’s normal to experience losing, every person does! There’s a whole science behind self-talk, which you can read about here.

Make failure the exception to the rule, not the rule itself

Yes, failure and sometimes losing the game happens to everyone, but it doesn’t have to happen every single time. Help your young athlete to set their mind on seeing failure as a springboard to success, not the final destination. Examples are powerful. Give them examples from your own life, from their own lives when they chose to try again, and from the lives of influential people (Walt Disney, Michael Jordan, Thomas Edison, and the lightbulb – some research on the fact that as many as 22 inventors before him helped lead Edison to his invention, might also be an excellent talking point about teamwork!).

Give the player the privilege of decision making

Encourage the player with the fact that they have a choice to make, and decision making is a privilege. Explain that they can either walk away from it or choose to be brave and face it head-on. It takes courage to play the game after you’ve lost. Point that out to them.

If they walk away from it now, explain the results of that choice: learning a skill at a young age gives players a massive head-start in life. Explain that they might feel regret later in life that they didn’t give it a chance. They might feel disappointed in themselves for not being willing to improve at something they could one day love. Explain that it’s always going to be harder to face the struggle head-on, but the rewards are worth it. One of those rewards could be a great win, or one of them could be a memory of being brave and developing resilience.

How a player responds (not reacts) to losing the game, or any kind of failure, will impact both their present and future health, as well as their performance. Start coaching healthy processing as soon as possible. The benefits will last a lifetime.

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Sean Szabo

Recognised as a leading brain-centred football coach in Gauteng, Sean Szabo is an English FA qualified coach who has worked internationally assisting player’s motor and technical football skills, as well as their cognitive development on and off the field. IQ Football was founded in 2015 by Sean as an amalgamation of his passion for football coaching, mentoring, and brain-centred research.

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