The agony of defeat

The Winter Olympic games are over. The athletes have all gone home. Some have medals (way to go!) but most do not. For every athlete who won gold, there was another who finished dead last.

The thrill of victory is wonderful for those who experience it, but what about the agony of defeat? How do you handle the emotional blow of being a loser without, well, being a loser about it?

It’s one of life’s hard lessons, usually encountered early in childhood, that you can’t always be the winner. Most youth athletes perform on a much smaller stage than the Olympics, but that doesn’t make defeat any easier to swallow, explains Dr. Claudia Reardon of the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin. Here’s her perspective for parents and other adults who work with young athletes (it’s advice that could equally apply to kids in other competitive activities such as spelling bees and math contests):

"Youth sports can be a really physically and emotionally healthy activity, but the reality is that not every bounce, play or game is going to go your child’s way," says Dr. Reardon. "The way you choose to handle can really help them grow, both as individuals and as athletes."

Step one is to acknowledge your child’s feelings. While they’re likely to take things to a catastrophic extreme when they come up short or their last-second shot bounces off the rim (think phrases like "I’m the worst player EVER" and "My life is ruined!"), you can help them take a more measured approach.

"Saying something as simple as, ‘I understand you’re feeling upset that you didn’t win the race’ can open up a discussion and let them know you’re there to listen," says Dr. Reardon. "And it’s OK if the conversation stops there; some children need to work through the disappointment on their own."

Plenty of adults seem to struggle with this themselves. Bad sportsmanship is getting a lot of attention these days. You have to wonder what it says about someone’s emotional disposition when his response to winning a silver medal in men’s Winter Olympics figure skating is to snark about the gold-medal winner’s failure to include a quadruple jump in his routine. Or what it says about the adults who think it’s acceptable to swear at coaches and referees and, in some extreme cases, get physically assaultive. Self-control, anyone?

I’m not sure it helps when certain athletes are uber-hyped by the media. It puts them under heavy pressure to succeed, with the implication that anything less than a gold medal constitutes failure. Not only do their fans expect them to win but there might be, as in the case of South Korean figure skater Kim Yu Na, millions of dollars’ worth of endorsements at stake. And what about their teammates, who are often equally hard-working but don’t get the same amount of attention?

In spite of the pressure-cooker of the world’s most elite sports event, though, there were many moments of Olympic grace, among the winners as well as the losers. These athletes displayed what I like to think of as emotional resilience, the ability to hold up under stress and not resort to negative, potentially destructive thought patterns and behaviors. It’s what makes a skater go out on the ice, land a great performance and win a bronze medal less than a week after unexpectedly losing her mother. It’s what makes a skier come back and compete the day after painfully wiping out in the slalom.

There’s been considerable study in recent years of emotional resilience. It has been linked to better health outcomes, increased resistance to stress and an increased capacity to recover from stress. Researchers are looking at how resilience can be fostered, especially in high-stress situations such as combat, trauma, loss or catastrophic illness.

Why are some people more resilient than others? Is it because of nature or because of nurture? We haven’t quite unlocked all the secrets of resilience but most of us know this quality when we see it.

In the end, these are the best lessons I’d like to take home from the Winter Olympics – not who won or lost but how well and how resiliently they played the game.

Photo: Associated Press

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