Getting to the point where winning big matches has a lot to do with knowing what to do when you don’t win
By Don Patterson
Our topic today is losing. To do it justice, I contacted three experts. Kerri Walsh, Todd Rogers and Jen Kessy.
Yep. Walsh, a three-time Olympic beach gold medalist and winner of 109 tournament titles. Rogers, a beach gold medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and winner of 78 career tournaments. Kessy, a beach silver medalist in London and a gold medalist at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships.
Here’s my thinking: To get to where they’ve gotten, they have obviously learned how to lose. Not learned how to enjoy losing, but learned how to size up a loss, learned how to figure out what went wrong and how to adjust their games and how, ultimately, to reload so they are in a better position to win the next time around.
Rogers recently endured what you might call the ultimate loss. He and his beach partner, Phil Dalhausser, were defending their Beijing gold medal in London, and they got bounced out in the round of 16 by an Italian team that was seeded 13th. Not surprisingly, it didn’t sit well with Rogers, who says it was both a surprise and a bummer.
“Right after, it was a little bit of disbelief,” he said. “It was like, ‘I can’t believe we just frickin lost.’”
One thing I’ve always noticed about Rogers, though, is he moves on quickly, win or lose. Talking to him 20 minutes after a loss is not so different than talking to him 20 minutes after a win. He analyzes how the match unfolded, says what went right, what went wrong. No temper tantrums after a loss. No irrational exuberance after a win.
I asked him about it recently, not long after he returned home from the Olympics. Why not higher highs and lower lows?
“Some people are extremely emotional, in that regard,” he said. “But winning and losing is part of life in general, and sports is a fairly minor part of life. I was reading a quote the other day about losing. Basically, the theme of the quote was that you learn so much more from a loss than you ever will from a win. And you have to look at it that way. You have to look at it as a learning experience rather than a massive setback. If you do, you’re always moving forward as an athlete and as a person.”
A couple of days later, he sent me a list of bullet-point items from things he’s read about dealing with losing and failure.
- Take personal responsibility and don’t blame other people.
- Look at the role you played in the loss.
- Don’t let the loss or failure paralyze you from trying again.
- Losing and failing can make you stronger.
What happened when Kerri and Misty began playing not to lose
The next call I made was to Kerri. The fact is, Kerri has not done a lot of losing in her career. She and partner Misty May-Treanor won every match in every Olympics they ever played – Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London – and have dominated beach volleyball for an entire decade.
But if you don’t think she’s thought long and hard about losing, think again. Earlier this year, she and May-Treanor were struggling to recapture their form from earlier in their careers, before Misty took time off and before Kerri had two kids. In the first three tournaments of the 2012 beach season, they finished fifth, ninth and ninth at consecutive FIVB events, and they were concerned. Unlike ever before, Kerri says they were playing volleyball “not to lose” rather than playing to win. During the months leading up to the London Games, they worked hard with a sports psychologist to change their thinking and regain their self-confidence.
“One thing I learned from (the losing streak) was that the only way to have confidence in yourself is through the way you talk to yourself and how you put things in perspective in your own mind,” Walsh told me. “If you say, ‘We just lost, I played like crap, I’m a loser,’ then that’s what you’re going to be and that’s how you’re going to play moving forward. Every athlete will tell you that losing is an opportunity to learn and then to step up and say, ‘I’m better than this. I’m going to get better.’ And if you lose again, keep working hard. It’s not over when you lose. Losing is essential to being great.”
Easier said than done
It can be tough to remind yourself that losing is often beneficial in the long run, and that’s partially because negative reinforcement so frequently accompanies defeat. Spin it any way you like, but sports in America is about winning, and when you don’t win, you hear about it. Everywhere. Kessy experienced that many times earlier in her career.
“I had been in nine finals on the AVP, and I hadn’t won, and people were making such a big deal about it – ‘Oh, my gosh. Nine times. I wonder if she’s ever going to win?’” she recalls. “And I’m thinking, ‘That’s nine more finals that any of you have ever been in.’ But I knew I was going to win. I just was going to do it on my own time. You just have to look at it in a bigger perspective and stop thinking so much about yourself. And the good thing is that when you lose, you actually think about why you lost. And then you go back and watch the video and learn from it. When you win, 16-14, no way you’re going to do that. You’re going to go celebrate. You’re not going to think about the fact that you could have lost really easily.”
Practicing what she preaches
If ever there were a perfect time to come unraveled, it was when Kessy and partner April Ross were playing the Olympic semifinal match in London, down a game, down four points in the second game – and staring across the net at Brazil’s Larissa Franca and Juliana Silva, who had beaten them nine times in a row and were the top seeds in the tournament.
“I was feeling discouraged,” Ross says. “I was thinking, ‘How are we going to win this?’ And I give a lot of credit to Jen for keeping our spirits up. She kept saying, ‘We’re going to do this. Keep believing.’”
Believe they did. And win they did, advancing to the gold medal match. The contrast between Kessy and Ross’ demeanor on the court and the demeanor of Larissa and Juliana couldn’t have been greater. While Kessy and Ross were supporting each other, TV viewers could easily see that Larissa was doing what she always does – riding Juliana and lecturing, making it clear to everybody who she thought was at fault.
“It’s a total contrast in style,” Kessy says. “Larissa looks at Juliana and says, ‘You need to set me better.’ You’re never going to convince me that being negative and being mean to your partner is the right way to play. April and I will say to each other, ‘What can I do for you?’ We take responsibility for our own actions. And April and I have lost some big matches and lost a lot of points that we shouldn’t have lost. If we were pointing fingers, we would have broken up years ago.”
Instead, they’re one of the world’s top beach volleyball teams. And they have an Olympic silver medal to prove it.
Don Patterson is the editorial director at JDP Publishing Group, which owns DiG magazine and handles all content for VolleyballUSA, the official publication of the sport's national governing body. He is also an editor at CBSsports.com and a former sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times.