Monday, April 27, 2015

Lessons In Losses

Today I'm going to talk about the importance of losing. I'm going to start off with a quite by John Wooden, the famous college basketball coach. Wooden said the only thing worse than losing too much is winning too much. Wooden had undefeated teams and he said they couldn't play their best basketball during the season because they felt pressure to continue to win and keep their streak alive.

Most people hate losing and this is why some people stop competing altogether. But avoiding competition isn't a solution, it's simply avoiding the issue. We think that losing is like failing and nobody wants to be not good enough. Staying confident and positive regardless of the outcome is one of the hardest things to accept in competition, but is an essential skill of top players. Winning and losing has such a major influence on our self-efficacy. When we win we feel good about ourselves, we lose we think we played awful and sulk. But someone always loses in competition; it's part of sport and is what makes it so exciting to play and watch.

This is why it is important you play against a variety of opponents; some that are a bit weaker than you, some at your level and other a bit better. I've always felt that I learned more from my loses. I thought about them more and they made me train and prepare better for future competitions. If you win all of the time you aren't playing against a high enough caliber of competition and you are failing to test yourself. If this is what you are doing you are holding yourself back from your true potential. You may become complacent with your current training routine and don't feel motivated to do more and try new things until you are pushed to do so.

The one area I get worried about is when people become complacent with losing. Some people lose too much and instead of fighting harder they are broken and are used to wilting when the going gets tough. This is a learned behaviour pattern is more psychological than physical. Learning to break out of this takes time and a change in your thinking. Here you could try setting small goals such as starting strong (e.g., being the first to get to 5 points), trying to win 2 rallies in a row late in a game, winning 1 game, focusing on your shot selection. You also will need to learn how to change your thinking patterns. If you've lost too much you automatically think negatively when you see yourself in a similar predicament in the future. You need to recognize this and understand that history doesn't always repeat itself, you can do this, you need to believe in yourself and come up with something positive to say to yourself. Learn to dig deeper when things seem the bleakest and anything can happen.

I already talked about how losing keeps you motivated to work harder and try new things. We may try and avoid playing stronger competitors because we don't feel ready to compete with them yet. You need to be brave enough to get out on court with a stronger opponent and learn from it. Don't take the results personally. In my opinion this is basically like getting a free lesson. The best players in the world have also lost the most. In squash it can be pretty psychologically damaging if you play someone a few levels higher than you. They can probably make quick work of you if they wish. This can be a tough pill to swallow especially for young kids. It takes a long time to jump up a number of levels, so be patient and persistent. You will get there if you believe and keep up the hard work. When we come up against a much stronger opponent the goal should be to make them work as hard as possible and give 100% effort. You never know what can happen. Also in future rematches they will respect your game and your effort and will expect a battle because of your previous effort. It also never hurts to ask them afterwards for some tips. Most good squash players are happy to give some tips afterwards. They likely have a better sense of what just happened on court and can offer you some excellent feedback. I always like people that aren't afraid of getting on court with stronger players, they enjoy the challenge like a puzzle that simply takes time to figure out the solution. You'll never figure out the puzzle by avoiding it.

So why else is winning too much no good for you? I feel one of the most important reasons is because we focus too much on immediate results and avoid trying new things that could have long terms gains for our game. This could happen in a number of different ways. Maybe you revert back to old habits and shots because they work and give you the desired result and you are comfortable doing this. But this is actually making it more challenging for you to reach your long term potential and goals. I enjoy trying to play new shots and a variety of shot combinations. This may come at the expense of a few more mistakes and maybe losing today, but can make a big impact on your long term development. Try and see your mistakes as a sign of learning and development and don't dwell on them. If you're not making any errors you're playing too safe.

I should also add that on the flip side of the coin, we can focus too much on long term goals and not put in our top effort to win today. I remember playing matches and thinking during them, well if I don't get this one I will one day down the road. You should be focusing on winning that match as well as keeping your long term development and goals in mind. This balance is what is so delicate and critical to being successful today and down the road. Regardless of the result, ask yourself afterwards some tough questions and continue learning and improving.

There's always a best player in a club. If that person is much stronger than any other member they will have to look outside of the club to get tough matches. That is if this person still wants to see how much better they can get. I've been the best player at a few different clubs over the years. I got pretty creative to make it more challenging. I tried playing matches where my opponents point total tallied over from game to game and I tried winning 3 games before they won 1 game.

I also enjoy playing matches where you put restrictions on yourself or playing someone after a tough training session. Sometimes I would do 10 court sprints after my opponent gets a multiple of 3 points. Of course you want to make sure you do this with someone who understands what you two are doing, like a sparring partner. Doing something like this in a regular league game will just make you seem like a jerk. Seek someone who is keen to train and is close to your level and is pretty fit. You can also try and set up back to back matches. Although I'm sure some of these things helped me, they were no replacement for playing someone at or above your level. The pace and duration of the rallies is much different and very tough to replicate. If at all possible, find someone that can push you and hopefully someone where the result is uncertain.

Losing is a tough pill to swallow but is part of becoming a champion. If top athletes couldn't handle losing they wouldn't compete with stronger opponents and would not have become so great. Be creative and try new shots. I always applaud good shot selections regardless of the result. Learn to be content with making good choices or trying a sneaky shot even if they don't work out this time. Otherwise you will just keep playing the same style with modest increments in accuracy over time. When you see someone creative or a top player play you realize there are so many things you can do and ways to win points. It doesn't have to just be by hitting good length and waiting for an error or very loose ball. You can also force the action, but this territory will come with plenty of mistakes as you learn how to execute them properly and when to play them.

I want to finish off this subject explaining another reason why healthy competition is so invaluable. If you win, but are not challenged, the win isn't very meaningful. If you win all of the time the wins also diminish in value. But if you win only once in a while and it's against tough competition you will have really tested yourself and they will hold more meaning to you. You have to be willing to put yourself on court with people of equal or sightly higher standards to get that sense of accomplishment. And even if you don't win this time around you will have learned more than sandbagging and winning with ease in a lower level. Although this can go both ways, where people perceive themselves as stronger players or don't want to risk losing to people that they believe are not at their level. This is why I like the U.S. ranking points system, you automatically are entered in the appropriate point level when you enter an event and have to have results to move up a division.

Have fun with your squash. Always play to win, but don't concentrate solely on the outcomes. If Ramy had done that as a child he never would have come up with such a masterful attacking repertoire. High risk shots can become consistent breathtaking shots with plenty of practice and patience. Play to win, not to not lose. You must make countless mistakes and lose to a lot of people along the way if you truly want to become the best that you can possibly be and a great champion.

1 comment:

  1. Superb article. I recently read that Tiger Woods used to allocate 1/3 of his game time as a junior to take on players who would beat him to learn strategies and tactics, 1/3 to those with whom it would be close to learn to win and 1/3 to those he would beat to practice what he had learned from the elite - a virtuous circle IMHO

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