Basketball on the Edge – Should Your Young Player Love to Win or Hate to Lose?

Growing up in the game of basketball I experienced many wins and losses along the way. Someone asked me recently whether I hated to lose or loved to win more when I was a player. It got me to thinking about how I approached the game as a player then and how I approach the game now as a coach and parent. Is one better than the other?

I looked back on my playing career and thought of the most vivid memories I have of my career. Only one of them was from a victory. In my last home game as a high school senior I hit a shot from just inside half-court in overtime to beat a huge rival. This was a team that also had several players on it that I considered good friends from our time playing summer basketball. I got carried off the court and later got a standing ovation in the local Burger King when I showed up there after the game. That was a moment I will never forget.

The majority of my vivid memories are from losses. As a senior in high school we lost a state tournament game on a disputed 3 pointer to a team that included a future teammate of mine at Kent State. As a freshman at Kent we lost by one point in the MAC Tournament final to Ball State, keeping us out of the NCAA Tournament. As a sophomore we were upset by Central Michigan in the MAC Tournament with our best team in my four years of college. I could go on with many more memories of losses.

For some reason those losses stick with me much more than the wins. Why is that? What does that say about me as a player? How does that impact me now as a coach and parent? Do I want my kids and players to have the same hate to lose attitude and approach that I had?

I believe that my hate to lose attitude sprang from two sources. First, I expected to win. I put so much time and effort into my basketball career that I expected to win games. When that didn’t happen I was upset and disappointed. Those losses would stick with me. The memories are deeper and more emotional. I remember getting on the bus after a tough loss and not being able to understand how guys could be laughing or joking. Didn’t they know we just lost? Didn’t they feel the pain too? What was their problem? Second, I spent a ton of time as a kid playing pick-up basketball on the playground. If you lost, you sat, often for a long time because of the number of guys waiting to play. Losing forced you to sit and I did not want to sit, I wanted to play. Kids today play far more organized basketball than I did when I was kid. Playing in tournaments every weekend means there is always another game coming, win or lose. Could this have an impact on young players today and how they view winning and losing compared to players (who are now parents) of my generation?

Now on to the greater question, is it better to hate to lose or love to win? Does either of these attitudes generate more favorable outcomes for young players? In The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, Jim Afremow wrote, “If you play not to lose, you are placing yourself in a no-win situation; there is everything to lose and nothing to be gained. If you play to win, you are placing yourself in a no-lose situation; by not overcoming the challenge at hand, all you can say is that you did not achieve today’s goal. ” I think he makes a great point, especially from the perspective of the parent of a young basketball player. Teams and players that play not to lose are often those that have the least fun, are stressed, and often play in fear of the outcome. Teams and players that play to win have more fun, are excited by challenges, and are able to enjoy a positive outcome when it arrives.

Which of my memories described above do I look back on most fondly? The game winning shot of course! Do I wish I had more vivid memories of wins rather than losses? Yes! Youth sports should create positive moments and instill confidence. Playing in fear of the outcome does not improve a player’s chance for success. Should we expect our kids to brood and sulk after losing a game? Is it a bad thing that kids can quickly get over a loss? I don’t believe that is the attitude we want to instill in young players. Striking a balance and keeping the games in perspective seems like an admirable goal for players and coaches to strive for. We should encourage kids to use losses as motivation or to help them learn from what happened to get better.

Certainly, competitiveness is a skill that we want to teach our young players. I want my kids to play as hard as they can and try to win every game they play. Yet, I don’t want them to be so caught up in the outcome that they lose the enjoyment of playing the game. At the end of the game I ask, “Did you play hard? Did you have fun? Did you listen to your coach?” and then I say “I love watching you play.” I try my best not to talk about wins and losses.

Should competitiveness that grows from the hate to lose attitude be the only goal of youth sports? As I have written before, if your young player loves the game they’ll practice and play and get better. They will become more competitive. Help your young player enjoy the victories, get over and learn from their losses and you’ll go a long way toward creating a positive environment in which your young player can thrive.

Do you love to win or hate to lose? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

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