Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

A surprising tool for managing your status anxiety

The most successful people have to learn this technique

I am no longer invited to watch the NCAA basketball tournament on television with my husband. (In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, in March the college basketball conference playoffs culminate in a three week national tournament – aptly named “March Madness”).  An avid and lifelong fan of Duke's high profile team, he cannot believe that I get upset for the kids on the losing team – even when, as occasionally happens, it happens to be the team he’s pulling for. (He’s considering banning me from other sports as well – since this seems to be a characterological failing on my part.)

He says winning and losing is part of the game, and that the team members have to learn to lose as well as to win (this is something that Duke's beloved and highly acclaimed Coach Kryzeweski, affectionately called Coach K,  has written about in his book “Leading with the Heart: Coach K's Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life,” on his experiences and thinking about coaching the Duke team to excellence).  And the funny thing is, I know this is true. I regularly tell the same thing to clients, whether they are dealing with competitive situations in their own or in their children’s lives.

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Here’s the key, though: small, manageable losses in childhood help children build the internal muscles for dealing with larger, more difficult losses in later life. But when I watch as these young men who put their souls and every ounce of heart they have into a game which they ultimately lose, I cannot help it. My heart breaks for them.

I wonder, though, if they feel the way I do. Do they finish a loss feeling like failures? Do they say to themselves and one another that they did the best they could, and that’s all that counts? Do they say, “Better luck next time”? I doubt it. But on the other hand, they do keep coming back for another game. Does that mean that they’re actually – at least the ones who don’t win – masochistic? Does it ruin their lives? Does it ruin school?

I’m not going to even try to address the issue that these youngsters play at a professional level without financial remuneration. But clearly that also has to have some impact on the meaning of any win or loss.

What I really am trying to understand is whether or not there is value in losing; or is winning really everything?

To quote my husband once again (and he is probably quoting someone else), you can’t win if you don’t play; and since no one wins all the time, you have to be ready to lose as part of the game. You don’t want to lose, but you know that it’s a possibility.

But then, what happens if you win? Are you a better person? Do you feel better about yourself? Do other people love you more?

Certainly you may get more attention and more admiration, at least for awhile. But what happens if you don’t win the next time? Losing puts a certain kind of pressure on a person; but so does winning.

I think of several people I know who were extremely successful early in their lives. They were defined, by others and by themselves, as winners. But that success did not always lead to later successes. In fact, they found that they were often passed over as they got older, that they were seen, while still quite young, as “has beens.” Their sense of who they were was not, in the end, enhanced by these wins.

But would they have been happier as losers?

Hard to know, of course. Maybe my husband is right after all. Maybe I have to stop feeling so badly for these youngsters. Maybe they’re smarter than I am and realize that each game is nothing more than a brief moment in time. Maybe they don’t define themselves by their losses any more than they define themselves by their wins, but instead think that both winning and losing is just part of playing the game. Maybe they even understand what Coach K means when he says that sometimes winning hides weaknesses and overshadows a poor performance.

In other words, winning doesn’t mean you’re perfect, or even that you’ve got everything figured out, or that you’re going to be happy for the rest of your life. Winning and losing are both part of a process, not a definition of who we are.

Maybe now my husband will let me watch the rest of the tournament with him. Maybe I won’t even feel sad for the losing team.

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F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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