Learning from losing

Losing sportIntro: This year has been the toughest of my career. I have worked with a series of quality coaches, awesome teams and yet been part of too many losses. This is my way to try make sense of the hurt, frustration and self-doubt and to find a way primarily for me to be better going forward. I hope it can be of value to you too. Yes there is a lot of detail and process, focus on the parts that add value to you. My biggest and most important lesson of 2015 is: Don’t confuse loss 
of performance, reputation, and even the loss of your job, with the loss of your sense of personal value. We are all special all of the time, even when we lose.

Let’s face it- losing is tough. It’s even harder to deal with when everyone in a happy team goes above and beyond and gives their best and collectively our best is not enough. Then losing sucks big time.  However losing is an inevitable part of sport – in any given game 50% of the players lose.

When we lose most of us go inside to try to think of ways we could have individually been better and done more,  some of us also look outside to find people or things to blame – often it’s a combination of inside and outside. It also sometimes happens that we don’t reflect, we don’t look inside and we just blindly hope it will be better next time.

We use phrases like, “We will learn from this” and “We can take a lot from this” with gritted teeth, and cloudy expressions.  However with the swirl of competing emotions and hurt it is hard to fully deal with and then learn from a loss, especially when it’s a big loss.

It’s even more challenging to learn the most relevant reasons behind why our team lost – what was at cause, and what was just a correlation?  Are we learning the wrong lessons, useful lessons or critical lessons? And how do we know the difference between the three types of lessons?

First some key principles to maximize learning from a loss

  1. You need to deal with your emotions that come from losing. Unprocessed emotions can affect clarity, slow down or stop the learning process – when you process emotions you can get to deepen your understanding of yourself and of what happened.
  2. Blaming something or someone limits learning – it’s more important to ask what is within our control that we can look to improve about that (umpire, weather, pitch, stadium, rule, etc)
  3. The quick conclusion is often not the correct conclusion, take time to challenge your immediate conclusions with slow and even reflection. Better yet, delay making conclusions until you have deeply reflected from multiple perspectives.
  4. Detail is power in learning, it’s often more useful to unpack 10 specific lessons from one moment, then 10 general lessons from a whole game.
  5. If you have linked your sense of personal value to whether your team wins or loses the rollercoaster of emotions will slow down your learning and limit your skills as a coach.  You may even feel that you have been attacked when someone gives you feedback/criticism that could be crucial for your learning. Unfortunately you also run the risk of taking your personal anger out on your team in a way that breaks them down and shames them, rather than processing your emotions so you can challenge the team in way that leads them to ownership, accountability and growth.
  6. Using the word ‘Why” to try to extract information and lessons from yourself and others is a very ineffective way to learn. A “Why” question easily returns information from the conscious mind, however can struggle to return accurate information from the unconscious mind. I haven’t come across a player that makes mistakes consciously – so to find a more accurate answer from either the conscious or unconscious mind ask, “What happened that?” or “What was your criteria for that decision?” “What was your process for doing X?” or “What was going on for you when?” These process questions take longer to answer, give the receiver of the question time to find the answer – it will be worth the wait.


Ireland Huddle 2 OQT


Learning from a win is an easier process: What worked for us? How did we do that? What needs to happen to do/have that more often? How much pressure did we put ourselves under /10? What mood were we in? What meaning or story did we have for the game? When did our preparation start? What did we do specifically? What different moods did we cycle through on the way to game day? (Tense, focused, then excited as an example) How can we transfer these lessons to the different contexts and challenges we face? And what new lessons (if any) do we need to add to our winning formula?

Unfortunately not nearly enough teams review, examine and nitpick how they won games – for those that do it’s a significant competitive advantage.

Learning from a loss is trickier as the unprocessed emotions that emerge from losing can slow down and distort learning and secondly we have to find which element(s) to tweak, as clearly some part of the formula/process didn’t work – we lost. If we throw everything out we will take a long time to find our collective performance recipe.

Sport is wonderful in that in every game there is a possibility for an upset. The mentality of extracting lessons from a loss against a “superior” team is that if we played our very best, and the “superior” team weren’t up for the challenge we would have a chance. Our review process will show us what to tweak and improve to get closer to our best next time, regardless of who we play.  This provides us with a lot more lessons and value then – “Of course they were better than us – what do you expect, we are a small/underfunded school/club/nation.”

The Three Steps to maximizing learning from a loss.

Step 1: Process the emotions

Step 2: Identify where to dig deeper?

Step 3: Dig deeper in key area(s) extract as many lessons as possible, plan how to implement, integrate and practice lessons.


Step 1: Process the emotions to get to the learning.

HOW TO PROCESS:  Find a blank piece of paper and write down on the left hand side of the page, one under another, all the thoughts and emotions that are swirling through your mind. Take some time with this.

Focus on the feelings that most jump out at you, and one at a time, focus on the feeling/words you are feeling and ask yourself, “Whats this about for me?” Then be patient to wait for the answer – it might take 30 to 40 seconds or more. It might emerge over longer periods of time. Just stay patient, non-judgemental and keep the question in mind. Once you have an answer write it to the right of the feeling. Now with your new answer that you have just written down, focus on the feelings and words and ask yourself again, ”What is this about?”  Do this as many times as you can until you feel you understand what the root cause of what you were feeling was.

Once you have done this, ask yourself the question, is there any value in holding onto these emotions/thoughts? If not what do I need to do to let these feelings go? Can I give myself permission to let them go now?











losing england


Step 2: Identify where to dig deeper?


Areas to explore:

Did we start well?  If not was it poor preparation? If not what was it? Nerves? What part was poor? Was there any flags/warnings? What stopped me taking action if I saw a flag/warning?  Is this a pattern in the team? What am I doing about this?

Did we lose focus/concentration/accuracy? Are we fit enough? Hydrated enough? Struggling with conditions? What can we do about this? Is the game important enough for the team to stay focused?  Are we individually or collectively caught between two styles or gameplans? Is this an individual problem or a team problem?

How much energy is being lost by the impact of the media, key people inside or connected to the team? Are family members, partners, parents, administrators, media, staff or players draining energy from the team?  If so what extra support can be given? What conversations need to be had? How can you use this as a way to connect more deeply through appropriate vulnerability and rally the team around the cause?

Did we have the best team gameplan? Did the individuals have their best gameplan? If so how do we know it was the best? Did the team buy-into and own the game plan? Did they co-create it? Did it match the way we train and our strengths? Did the team challenge the gameplan – and thereby improve it? Do the individual players have a game-plan that is a cross section of their individual strengths, what the team requires of them and what is needed in the context of the game?

How well did we execute the gameplan? How come? Is it buy-in? Pressure? Lack of Belief? Lacking in skills – is the gameplan too advanced for the skills in the team? Lacking in maturity? Lacking in technique? Lacking focus? Lacking commitment? Lacking patience? Over-confidence? Complacency? Arrogance? What is at the root of this? What can we do about this? How can we talk about and practice this missing piece more?

What was our decision making like in key moments? – Out of the, on average, 10 key moments in the game, how many key moments did we win? How come? Do we know what to do in those key moments? If so how come we aren’t doing it? If we don’t know – how can we learn and practice that? Who can we learn this piece from?

How did our culture impact this result? (Your culture are the norms, patterns and attitudes of the team – they are what the team does and how it behaves – not what has been written down),  Did our culture help/hurt us today? What part helped? What part needs some improvement? When will you have that discussion? Does our culture support honest, open and vulnerable conversations? Do we have regular conversations that are honest, open and vulnerable? How did the team dynamics impact the way we played? Were there any visible clues that any of your players were struggling before the match? If so what stopped you engaging with them?

Were our mental skills strong enough to overcome the challenge and were our mental technqiues effective? What mental challenges did we face today? How have we addressed, worked at and learnt the skills needed for that challenge? What was our level of bounceback-abilty in the game? How do we address that and improve that? Did moments of panic/fuzzy thinking limit us? What can we do about this? Did the mental techniques and processes we used bring out the best in us? If not how come?

How did we handle the uncontrollables and curveballs?  How did we deal with the state of the pitch, the facilities, and the quality of the umpiring, the crowd (or lack of crowd)? How did we deal with the unexpected? How much impact did that have on us?

What can we learn from the flow of the game?  When we were up – how did we do that?  How can we stretch that for longer periods? When they were up – how did they do that? What can we learn from that? How do we prevent them getting up more often? How do we gain back momentum as quickly as possible when they are up? What were the key momentum changing moments in the game that need to be reviewed in detail?

How much is previous losses costing us?  Do we want it too badly? Are we (too) desperate? Are we trying too hard or have we emotionally thrown in the towel? Are we focusing on the outcome of not losing instead of the processes that will lead us to playing our best? If so how can we clear the air? How can we have an emotional release that will allow us to start the next game “clean”?

What was the behaviour of the leadership group? How did they respond in key moments? Did they recognise them? Did they individually and collectively know how to make a positive contribution? Did any leaders behaviour have a negative impact? What can be done to educate and empower these leaders more?

What did the opposition do better than us?  Was it skills? Composure? Gameplan? Belief? Patience? Desire?  What can we learn from their success? Where were we better than the opposition? How come that strength didn’t count for more? What shifts do we need to make and how do we need to practice now that we know this?

What grading would we give the individual departments
: (Batting, bowling, fielding or Attack/Defense) How come that grade? How much of our practice is showing up in our game? How come? What is the quality of our standards? How can we push those up? What is the quality of our attitude? How come? What are you/we doing about that?

Where can I get additional feedback from? Do I have access to video? Are there players or coaches I can ask for feedback? How open am I to feedback? Can I create an environment where others can express their views even if it’s hard to hear? How open am I/we to grow? How much am I/we able to challenge the excuses we face?

And lastly for the leader/coach/captain/staff/senior player/player: How much is my beliefs, style, leadership, preparation, communication, behaviour, contribution, planning, knowledge, emotional states,  focus and quality of training influencing each of the other areas? What am I doing to become better? What am I doing to contribute more to the team?

Members of the Butler Bulldogs express their dejection after losing the men's final NCAA Final Four college basketball championship game to the University of Connecticutin Houston, Texas


Step 3: Dig deeper in key area(s) extract as many lessons as possible, plan how to implement, integrate and practice lessons.


  1. Chose one area where you want to zero in
  2. Answer the questions in that area as slowly as you can – reference your answers against 3 to 5 examples.  See how many counter-examples you can find (if relevant).  Do you still see things the same way?
  3. Is the area that needs improvement a team-wide area, an individual thing, or a group of individuals?
  4. Identify 1-3 key moments in your examples to extract extra lessons.  Focus on one key moment at a time.
  5. Every key moment has two parts – what happened on the outside that is visible, and what was happening on the inside (that was invisible) for the player(s) involved.  Find the freeze-frame on the video or describe the moment again and identify the freeze-frame moment.  It’s important to “mentally pause” on one moment, if it lasts more than a second – it’s too long and you won’t get as much learning.

    Once you have agreed upon a freeze-frame moment ask the players to talk about their invisibles – share yours if relevan

In that “paused” moment – for each individual to reflect on:

1) What was their thought process?

2) What were they trying to do?

3) What were they saying to themselves (if anything)?

4) What were they feeling and if they were feeling anything – “What was that about?” *slow answer*

5) Was there any tension in their body – where? “What was that about?”  *slow answer

6) Did their inside affect their outside (either positively or negatively?)


Knowing all of this:


7) Is this you at your best? If so what do you need to do to be like this more often? – If this is not you at your best – what do you need to do to be more of your best?

8) How will you practice and remind yourself to do this?

9) What have you learnt? What’s important about that? What else have you learnt? What’s important about that? Any other lessons?

10) Now that I know this – How will you integrate and practice what you have learnt?

11) How will you monitor/measure this?

12) Whose help are you going to enlist either as support and/or accountability?

12) What are the smallest possible steps that you can celebrate as you improve?


1 thought on “Learning from losing”

  1. Tim, this is really a fine piece of work. More times than I care to remember, I have struggled to convey a loss with a positive spin. I don't remember having coach that I could model that I could feel comfortable repeating. I appreciate your format…thank you.

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