Created: Sunday, 06 November 2016 15:04
Written by Kraig Robson
“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” An oft-quoted phrase from the legendary Vince Lombardi, who led the Green Bay Packers to five championships in seven years. He is considered one of the finest coaches in NFL history.
I understand what Lombardi was saying — that if a loss doesn’t bother you, even haunt you, you’ll continue losing. But I think that with Lombardi’s ethos, it’s far too easy to let the losses consume your psyche, leading to frustration, anger, and more failure as you grit your teeth ever harder. I think that learning, and ultimately winning, stems from first becoming a “good loser.”
Being a good loser is about learning lessons from loss, and having the right mindset to cope with a stream of setbacks. As best as possible, divorcing yourself from the results and focusing on the process. Seeing improvements as a series of small victories, regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard. Seeing the wins inside the losses, whether it’s a sport, or learning math.
Stan “The Man” Wawrinka is currently the 3rd ranked tennis player in the world, and someone who personifies this attitude towards losing.
Most professional tennis players have a peculiar challenge — they lose every tournament they enter. On the men’s tour, the Big 4 (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray) have won a staggering percentage of tennis tournaments. From the 2005 French open through the 2016 US open, they have won 42 of the 47 major singles titles (89%), and 90 of the 106 Masters 1000 titles (85%). Even if a player beats members of the Big 4, they also have to beat other players in the tournament. Tough sledding.
In 2013, at the age of 28, Stan had won a few small professional tournaments and had never won a grand slam. He then enlisted the help of coach Magnus Norman, a former player who had helped steer fellow Swede Robin Soderling to a No. 4 ranking. Norman improved Stan’s fitness and strokes, but most importantly, helped Stan transform his mindset about playing tennis.
Stan has a quote from Irish poet Samuel Beckett tattooed onto his left forearm:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
A statement about focusing on process, and learning, that has perhaps never been more poetically phrased. We are humans, so we can’t completely divorce ourselves from the motivation that comes from winning and the sting that comes from losing, so “Failing Better” is about seeing the wins inside the losses. It helps to restore that golden ratio of success to failure that keeps us motivated to continue learning.
Stan has so internalized this sentiment that he has blossomed at a time when most tennis players are winding down their careers. An idea so powerful that it has, quite literally, gotten under Stan’s skin. His signature celebratory gesture is to point to his temple — an indication that his most important transformation has been one of mindset.
Stan is now a three time Grand Slam Champion, winner of The Davis Cup for Switzerland, an Olympic Gold Medalist (with Roger Federer) in doubles, and winner of more than a dozen tournaments. And what’s more amazing is that those three major titles are at three different events - The Australian Open, the US Open, and Wimbledon. He currently holds a losing record against each of the Big 4 (combined 18-61), and yet he has now achieved an almost-certain hall of fame tennis career. Failing better.
If you are not a hardcore tennis fan, you are most likely unaware of Dominika Cibulkova. At 5’3” (160 cm, and Brad Gilbert has stated he believes she’s actually about 5’1”, or 155 cm), the 27 year old Slovakian is a full head shorter than the likes of Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, and Petra Kvitová. Watching Dominika play is to witness the heart of a lion that has somehow found its way into a diminutive dervish. She is all smiles, enthusiasm, self-encouragement, dancing feet, and boundless energy. Even during changeovers, she taps her feet on the ground like a heavy metal drummer on double bass pedals.
Two years ago, Dominika watched the WTA year-end finals from a hospital bed, recovering from surgery on a ruptured achilles heel. The year-end finals is an elite event, just one rung below the grand slams, where only the top eight players in the world are invited to participate. They split into two groups of four, play round robin elimination, and then only the top two from each group advance to the semifinals.
Still recovering from the surgery, Dominika started 2016 at No. 38 in the world. She climbed, fought, lost, learned, recovered, and squeezed her way into the top 8, qualifying for the WTA year-end finals for the first time in her career.
In the finals, she lost her first two round robin matches, and needed a straight set victory over the always-tough No. 5 ranked Simona Halep in order to advance to the semifinals. She did so. Next she faced Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semifinals, and defeated her in an extremely difficult three set match.
In the final match against fellow late-bloomer and current No. 1 Angelique Kerber, Dominika played the match of her life.
The irony of a tennis stroke is that, when hitting with spin, the harder shot is actually the safer shot. But it requires full commitment and belief to consistently make that happen. It’s so very easy to begin doubting yourself — to focus on the possible outcomes, slow down your swing, and watch the ball sail 10 feet out.
No matter. Dominika, through the entire match, swung away with abandon. She understood that attacking was the only strategy to employ against the likes of Kerber. And for two incredibly compelling sets, she employed that strategy, bringing her to match point.
And then Dominika choked. And choked again. And again. Three match points that she failed to convert. She looked tight.
No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Another match point, swinging away with abandon, feet churning, she smacks a ball that hits the net, pops up, and lands softly on the other side, well out of Kerber’s reach.
For years, finding the wins, and the lessons, inside the losses. And now the win. Dominika Cibulkova, at age 27, is the WTA year end women’s champion, by far the biggest title of her career. She will end the year ranked No. 5 in the world.
Which brings me to my (our) beloved Cubs. I moved to Arlington Heights, a Northwest suburb of Chicago, at age five. I began playing organized baseball soon after, and spent seven years on Little League teams like the Bulls, the Pilots, and yes, the Cubs. I vividly remember watching Ernie Banks hit homers in Wrigley, and imitating Don Kessinger’s leaping throws from shortstop. I am a lifelong fan, despite the fact that I left the area in my early 30’s and don’t have much time to watch baseball anymore.
And like all Cubs fans, I dealt with the experience of loving a team that always loses. To say that the Cubs, and their fans, felt snakebit is the understatement of the century (actually, running into two centuries). I believe in science and rationality, but when it comes to the Cubs, there was a bad juju associated with the team so profound that I felt it had crept into my personal life. Generally speaking, I understand that I am extremely fortunate, but nevertheless, with every woman who dumped me, every professional disappointment, every time they gave me french fries when I had asked for onion rings, it all made sense. I was somehow, in some small way, as star crossed as my team.
But these Cubs, they were different. Too young to have any responsibility for disappointments by the perennial losers, but savvy enough to have a deep understanding of Cubs history, what their fans and former players have gone through, and learning from it.
Despite being down 2-1 to the Dodgers in the NLCS, and 3-1 to the Indians in the Series, they didn’t get tight and didn’t lose their cool. The seemed to stay focused on the process — they talked about enjoying the game and taking it one moment at a time. Sure, they were behind, but they were failing better. They saw those wins inside the losses.
Game 7, two outs in bottom of the 10th inning, Cubs up by a single run. A choppy ground ball to the third base side of the mound. As all Cubs fans know, the perfect time to freeze, focus on winning the World Series instead of just fielding a ground ball, throw said ball wildly into the stands — along with our hearts, allow runs to score, lose the game, and return home as goats.
But not these Cubs.
Chris Bryant, his loping 6’5” frame gliding to the ball, smoothly scoops it into his glove. As he begins to make that throw he’s made thousands of times, the big man’s cleats begin to slide. He feels it and hunches his shoulders in order to compensate.
And then, instead of tightening and panicking, a smile briefly crosses his face. He is playing his beloved baseball, being watched by millions, and enjoying the process of fielding a baseball in the world series. Fail better.
But he doesn’t fail. His aim, and his heart, is true. The ball smacks into Anthony Rizzo’s beckoning glove. The sound of losing, learning, and after 108 years, winning.
Like so many Cubs fans, the tears well in my eyes as I think of the generations of people who have longed for this one moment. Our Cubs have won the World Series.
P.S. Steve Bartman, please step forward and allow Cubs fans to beg your forgiveness. You had no more to do with the Cubs losing than the Billy Goat — the previous team did not have the mindset to win the World Series (walk, wild pitch, single, booted ball, double, sac fly, missed cutoff man, walk, double, single). Fans reaching for balls — that’s baseball.