"When you learn how to die, you learn how to live."
- Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom
Two weekends ago, our University of Denver men’s lacrosse team lost to Penn State in our second game of the season. We played miserably on defense and gave up way too many easy goals. As a volunteer assistant who helps out with the goalies and the defensemen, it was a bit embarrassing. I felt like I had done a terrible job preparing them for the Nittany Lions and that I had let them down in a way.
After the game, I felt miserable. I have written about this before, but losing is just not a fun experience. In fact, losing is painful. I have played or coached in athletics now for almost three decades and the losses never get any easier! I always experience a fair amount of grief after each loss and after my experience this past weekend, I really tried to sit with that feeling and see what it was all about.
A good friend of mine, Rob McNamara, has written a soon to be released book entitled, “The Elegant Self”. In it, he discusses the idea of the annihilation of certain aspects of our selves and our egos. He writes, “The sincere experience of annihilation can surface in a an intense confrontation with survival even when safety is of no actual concern.” I read this line in his book as we were traveling home to Denver after our loss and immediately texted Rob, “Losing in sports is annihilation!”. I realized that athletics are a perfect practice for us to experience this confrontation in life, make some sense of it and grow through it.
Our athletic experiences can have some very clear parallels to a certain type of death. When we fully commit to a sport, we are trying to “survive” by winning. If we lose, we may not get to play another day in the playoffs. It is also interesting to notice our term for overtime rules in many sports, which we call “sudden death”. The idea of losing literally meaning death may stem back to when the Mayans played a ball game that was steeped in ritual and spiritual meaning. After their games, which attracted huge numbers of people, the winners were awarded a feast and celebration, while the leader of the losing team was actually sacrificed and killed!
Fortunately for us today (I would have been killed several times over by now if I had been a Mayan goalie), there are ways in which athletics provides a more symbolic and subtle level of a death experience. After a loss, we are humbled. Whatever ways in which we see ourselves as superior to others, or any part of our ego that puts itself above others, are quickly brought down to reality after a loss. We can poignantly experience this wake-up call and see that we are just as fallible as anyone else in this world and we are not perfect in many ways. These are beneficial deaths for us to experience as they maintain our humility.
Another way in which we can experience death after a loss is that it allows us to let go of old ways of being. Our world is constantly evolving and changing. We must continue to grow with the universe or get left behind. So, many times a loss allows us to look at ways of being - both playing and coaching - that we may have to let go of. Perhaps our way of doing things is not working anymore and we need to come up with new ideas or approaches in order for us to succeed another day.
In the past, I have also written, “Winning Does Not Matter” and I still believe that. In that blog, I wrote about how it is important for us to strive to be our best and not attach our identity to wins, trophies or championships. So, that may sound counter-intuitive to what I am writing about here and it is in some ways. The other night, I was discussing this idea of losing as annihilation with Rob and his fiancé Brooke, who noted, “Winning and losing mean everything and nothing,” and she was completely right!
We are fighting to survive when we decide to pour ourselves passionately into competition. When we win, our highest aspects of ourselves have succeeded and proved themselves to be great on that given day. When we lose, our less integrated ways of being have failed us in a way and those parts of ourselves are destroyed by our opponents. We are disappointed in not having displayed our talents from our most optimal way of performance. We must die to those ways of being and playing that have not allowed us to compete at the highest level, so we can have success later.
So, what is the practice? For everyone, it will vary greatly, but I believe there are certain steps that people can take to let parts of themselves die after a loss and become greater in the process :
1. Feel. What do we feel after a loss? By experiencing our feelings after a loss, it may allow us to grow and see blind spots within ourselves that are holding us back from greatness. For example, these feelings that we experience after a loss may be what we fear the most before going into a game. If we fear feeling sad, then we may fear loss like death! The more we can feel that sadness after a loss, the less we will fear it the next time around.
2. Do not run away! This is one of the many reasons why it is important for athletes to practice staying sober after a loss instead of running out to a party to get wasted. The more present that we can be with ourselves after competition, the more we can learn through the experience.
3. Be suspicious of grandeur. After we lose, it is the perfect time for us to reevaluate and grow from our mistakes. One way we can do this is to look at the ideas that we hold about why we are great at something. For instance, maybe a player thinks he is a great scorer, but could have helped his team by passing the ball more in that game. It is always in important for us to be self-aware so that we can continue to grow and get better.
4. Stay balanced. It is important for us to recognize that while we might be sad or disappointed about a loss, we can still be grateful for many things in life. Especially in a team setting, we are surrounded by our teammates, coaches, families and friends, who still love us, win or lose! Certain aspects of ourselves might be dying, but we can recognize those things in our life that are still very much alive!
We can use this same practice in all aspects of our life. We can constantly strive to be our best and offer ourselves to the world in optimal ways of being each and every day. Many times, we will succeed and many times we will fail, no matter what we do! We must risk everything and nothing at the same time.
"When you learn how to die, you learn how to live."