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We Need To Practice Losing

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at July 24, 2021

As many of you most likely know, the England Men’s Football Team recently lost the European Cup final match to Italy, after extra time and penalties. Throughout the tournament, the players have been a model of sportsmanship, team spirit and leadership. The team are a great example of cooperation, diversity values and community spirit.

Captain Harry Kane took part in LGBTQIA+ Pride month by wearing a rainbow for his Captain’s armband. The team chose to show solidarity for Black, Indigenous, People of Color by “taking the knee” when the national anthem was played, sending a message to our political leaders and country that they do not participate in blind nationalism that ignores the crimes committed by their country. One team member, Marcus Rashford has made the headlines in the UK for his campaign to ensure poor children were fed when schools were closed and they could not access free school meals. His campaign was so successful that it actually changed UK government policy.

Despite all of this the fans in Wembley stadium let the team down and let their country down. Shouts of racist abuse towards during the end of the match continued on social media. Such abysmal behavior has been swiftly followed by abuse levied at Lewis Hamilton regarding his win at the British Grand Prix. Resorting to racism in the face of defeat is totally unacceptable and shows a gaping chasm in society which affects us in all areas of citizenship, including at work; the inability to lose with grace.

Sore Losers

When I was a child I was renowned for being a sore loser. Many of my friends and family would even refuse to play games with me. I now know that most games, which involve waiting for others to take their turn, simply don’t provide enough dopamine for my ADHD neurotype and so I get bored. Winning was the only route out of the boredom, so it became my motivator. As I got older I learned to stop playing games that bored me, and started enjoying the process more than the end result.

Losing does not come naturally to many of us. Yet ambition is a good thing for human progress, we don’t want to squash it, or dilute it with too many “everyone is a winner” events. But we have a lot to learn about losing gracefully in society and celebrating other peoples’ success. The caustic, toxic effects of sore losing, jealousy and diminishing the achievements of others are visible in sport, education, workplaces and politics and it is time to move on. Human beings have evolved specifically to work best in teams, and when one of us wins, we all rise.

Reframe Jealousy

As a young career professional, I used to experience jealousy frequently. I had anxiety about my own career, self-consciousness about whether I was doing the right things, and generally fretting about how others perceived me. I would see other people doing well and fall into the mental trap of diminishing their achievements as luck.

I’m not proud of that. However, as I grew up and began to finish projects, my degree, my master’s I felt less anxiety about my life chances and the jealously began to abate. Instead, I started to experience jealousy as a message from my subconscious – if you see that and you like it, maybe you should make that your next goal? Maybe in this way jealousy can serve to spur us on by helping us to set goals that will make us happy and know for sure our next career move.

Instead of being envious I began to embrace people who were doing things that I thought were awesome, to perceive them as role models. I got to know some amazing people, some ambitious women and I learned from them. It was liberating and formative in my own career success. Most notably was an offhand chat with a psychologist at a conference who had just passed her PhD viva – I felt that pang of jealousy and realized that it was time for me to do my own PhD.

Celebrate Success

I competed in triathlon events in my thirties and was changed forever by the approach of my triathlon club members, who would stay and cheer every single racer in at the end, until everyone in the club came home. Anyone with a personal best got applause and accolades, from the sub-three hour marathoners to the sub six hours.  

Before my boys first ever sports day at school, I was shocked to be asked by one of their teachers not to run in the mom’s race. It transpired that some of the other parents had witnessed me jogging to school pick up and had reportedly complained, saying that they wouldn’t participate if I did. I was aghast at the subliminal message this conveyed, that someone who tried hard at something should not be allowed to demonstrate it in case other people felt bad about themselves. How is that a useful value to teach our children?

When we see other people succeed, it does not need to reflect badly on us. This is not a given. Someone else doing something wonderful does not necessitate deep personal lacking or regret. We can simply be happy for other people and celebrate their achievements. We can interpret them as inspiration or simply enjoy other people doing a good job. The six hour marathoners can enjoy the three hour marathoners’ achievement without self-reproach. This is what being part of a sports club taught me and as I lost my own self-reproach I found it much easier to feel joy about other people’s success. I wish I had learned this at a younger age!

When other people doing well makes us feel bad, that is an issue inside of us that needs addressing. It is an immaturity or a lacking in our life that we should confront directly with ourselves, not with them. No one benefits from “hiding their light under a bushel” in case other people are upset, yet this is exactly what some environments teach us with social rules such as “don’t be a show off.”

Losing Is No Excuse For Racism

What we saw after the Euro 2020 final and the British Grand Prix was a crowd of people deeply dissatisfied with their lives and country. They demonstrated for us all to see how weak, unfulfilled and desperate their own lives are by being unable to fall in step with the leadership of their national sports heroes. I am ashamed of my country but not surprised. You can disagree with the steward’s decision on Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen’s racing incident without resorting to racism. Identity level abuse is not a necessary follow on for being unhappy with an outcome.

We have not taught children to fail without shame, we have not supplied an adequate infrastructure to support opportunities for all. And without fairness, without equity in politics, work and education, humans tend to behave appallingly. This has been shown throughout history and we are no different in the twenty-first century.

Elite athletes and sports teams excel at losing. It is what they do best, think of Serena Williams comforting Naomi Osaka after Osaka won the US Open in 2018 and was overcome by boos from the crowd. Think of the England Men’s team standing shoulder to shoulder after coming second in the UEFA cup, the strongest international England soccer result in 12 years. These leaders recognize when their opponents did a better job and applaud such journeys, they use the experience to hone and improve their own skill. This is the ultimate goal of a competitive economy, that we raise standards by letting ambition drive us to do better.  

Culture belongs to all of us. The examples we set, the words we say or the silence we deploy to condone. When we were winning, the narrative was team success, when we were losing, it divided and brought out the worst in us. This is not necessary. Celebrating the success of our opponents is a solid play in creating a culture where everyone feels empowered to strive for their potential.


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