Why Teams Lose

I am going to base this post on the work of one of my favourite sports psychology authors, Jim Loeher and the words in his book “The New Toughness Training for Sports” (Penguin ISBN 0-525-93839-7). I try to read as much as I can in this subject area and this publication is right at the top for me and has been for quite some time. If you have had one of my presentations inflicted upon you, you have probably seen me hold up my dog-eared copy. Jim is one of the very few authors to have placed the largely theoretical world of sports psychology into reality, providing actual activities one can do to improve in this area. It’s a must read for any teams with whom I work. OK, let’s examine, why teams lose. To illustrate the reasons, I’ve chosen to use the curling rings, the “house”.

In the twelve foot circle, not at all close to competing successfully, is TANKING. I don’t think this is a very well known term, perhaps used more south of the border, but so many talented teams fall into this category. I describe it as being afraid to win. What? How can a team be afraid to win? Isn’t that the whole reason for competing? Good questions. Let’s take them one at a time.

Being afraid to win is all about taking a risk. Entering a competition is facing defeat squarely in the face. That’s why short-term goal setting is so important. A loss on the scoreboard doesn’t necessarily mean that “all is lost”’. The short-term goal might have been to eliminate a “big end” plague that has been haunting your team. You did, but a series of small ends scored by your opposition did you in. Did you lose? Yes. Were you successful in meeting a short-term goal? Yes. But, let’s get real. Sometimes that score- board is all that counts and it’s uncomfortable to “lose” and as confident as one might be when taking to the ice, there is the possibility that you might lose. So, teams not wishing to risk losing start to rationalize their way to a perceived victory. They set a new standard of success that is not like short-term goal setting. It’s tanking. It’s being the surprise winner of your club championship and then realizing that in the zone competition, all the club members will be watching the results. And worse than that, should the team be successful at the zones, it’s on to regions and yikes, all the clubs in the zone will be watching. So, without discussing it, the team decides that a “good showing” at the zones will allow them to say, “Well, we won the club title and got to the “C” semis at zones. Heh, we did pretty well.” In reality, they had just as much talent as any other team in the zones and could have gone on to regions but they tanked. They didn’t want to take the risk of being on stage at regions.

I use this at just about every high performance camp I do. Everyone wants to win. Some even know what it takes to win. Few are willingly to do what it takes to win.Willing to do what it takes doesn’t just mean the sacrifices of practice etc. It means being willing to take a risk as well. We have all tanked at some point or another. For me it was in the last millennium, in the early 1970’s. I was playing out of a small 4 sheet club in the town of Elmira just north of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. We won the zones that year and had to play a team from London Ont. who had already been to the “holy grail”, the Brier. At that time, there were no regions and the 16 zone winners across Ontario were paired in a best-of-three competition with the winner moving on to provincials. The games were played at the Glenbrier Curling Club (no longer in existence in Waterloo). The London team knew what they were doing. In the locker room the talked about provincials, not this silly zone competition, and they wore their purple hearts. We, on the other hand, sat silent, watched and listened.

We played our game to a tee in game one. We hit everything in sight and only drew if we had the chance. The London squad was not quite as sharp and we won a close game. Then it happened! We knew that we were one win away from going to provincials. We knew it meant a trip into “the Big Smoke” (aka Toronto) to play the other seven inter-zone winners (which usually meant playing more “big city” teams). So, what did we do? We played well in the two remaining games. Just well enough to say that we “did good” (apologies to my English teachers) and “almost won”. We took on those London sharp shooters and took them to the brink. Wow, what a great try! We didn’t realize it then but what we did was TANK! We were afraid to win. We were just as good as they were and actually, looking back, on that particular day, we were better. But we didn’t want the risk of looking silly at provincials, so we folded our tent carefully. We felt good at the time, but we tanked. I’m not proud of it but I learned never to do that again. The long-term feeling “ain’t so good”!

In the eight foot circle of our imaginary house is ANGER. The poster boy for anger was John Mclnroe. To this day, many knowledgeable tennis people feel that he might have been the greatest naturally talented player to ever live but very few would regard him so due to his on-the-court outbursts. In his playing days, John Mclnroe’s fan club could held its annual convention in a telephone booth. He was not well liked and he didn’t care. He was focused on only one thing, winning. Unfortunately, he fell short of many of his goals due to his anger. It was his way of dealing with stress. For those of you who did not have the “privilege” of seeing him play, John directed his tantrums at officials (line judges were his favourite target), media, event organizers, grounds crew, opponents, fans, locker room attendants, ball boys or girls, etc. Many thought it was just his miserable temperament. But, if you watch John do his “colour” work on NBC today, you will know that he is really a pretty good guy. No, anger was his way of dealing with stress. Worthy of note is the fact that almost never was anger self-directed. That was by design. But it took energy to carry on like that, energy that should have been directed to the task at hand, playing top-flight tennis. In a word, he was not accountable for his shortcomings and therefore never reached his true potential.

In the curling world, the lack of accountability is clearly evident in the excuses a player makes. The ice is bad, the skip can’t place the brush properly, the game time is too late, the food at the club is poor, the lighting is bad, the brushers don’t judge the draws well, the … I think you get the picture. Usually the complainers are good curlers, but their “anger” (always addressed toward someone or something else) prevents success.

In the four foot, we find the most maligned of all sports terminology, CHOKING. For an athlete to say that he/she choked is like a chef admitting his/her souffle fell. It’s death itself. But, when you choke, it means many good things. It means that you didn’t tank, you are willing to take the risk. It also means that you focused your energy on playing the game and were accountable for your actions. Unfortunately, it also means that you probably focused on the outcome of the event rather than the task at hand.

Heh, we’ve all done it. “If I make this open hit, we win the bonspiel”. “If I make this open draw, we’re in the final.” “If I…” Well, you get this picture too. And, you know the likely result, oops! You choked! But, the good news is that you were very close to that competitive “button”.

OK, I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. What’s “on the button”?

To be truly competitive and to perform well, you must feel CHALLENGED! It’s that “I-can’t-wait-to-play” attitude that all elite athletes have. It’s not cockiness, it’s not defiance, it’s not overbearing but it is calmness. It is trust in your skill set and that of your teammates. It is tunnel vision. It is “the zone”. You can be challenged without being successful on the scoreboard. But it is not trying to do your best. That’s an outcome that results frequently in choking. It’s the knowledge that if you don’t succeed on the scoreboard, your opponent had to bring his/her “A” game to the ice to win. It took everything they had. They were forced to drain their tank.

When you lose, make sure it was for the right reason(s) and of course, don’t lose the lesson!