“The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat” is a phrase you often hear within regards to sports. There is obviously a lot of pleasant emotions around winning and success. Just as there are a lot of negative emotions about losing or failure. But why is this a thing? Why do we cherish winning more than losing? Is the effort not the same? Do we do more in our wins than in our losses? Why is winning so special when ultimately our lives don’t drastically change on way or another, at least within the context of sports. There is a very big focus on results in life from a very young age.
We learn as children through reinforced lessons, told “No” when we do something we shouldn’t and cheered when we do something we should. When we first learn to walk it is amazing, but when we walk away from our parents by accident as we get older we get scolded. Now, I am not saying there aren’t bad things to be corrected. Just simply illustrating that point that what can be positive, can also become negative.
My title was a bit of an attention grabber if I’m being honest, but it’s important to me to illustrate this point because I really don’t believe that there is agony in defeat. I also don’t believe that victory should be more thrilling than a defeat. But before you dismiss the idea, let me explain a few points I will address. First, wins and losses are balanced equally, if you win and lose you are 1 and 1. Everything in life is binary like this, it either happened or it didn’t. So why do we value wins as positive, when we likely learn more from a loss? I will answer this later! Second, the most successful people in history were losers at some point. They wound up winning big because they never accepted defeat as a negative. How do we fail in order to succeed? Again, will answer that later. Third, life is NOT zero-sum but sports are, we need to change that. If I achieve success, it doesn’t prevent another’s success (even in instances it seems to, it doesn’t) but in sports success is only measured by wins, but sports shouldn’t be zero-sum. Just because I win doesn’t mean you lost. I will explain this later as well.
Finally, the most important point I am going to make in this post. There’s no agony in defeat because no loss can truly defeat you if you don’t cherish results. If you value the right things in life, EVERY loss is temporary. If you overvalue money and lose it, you will never be willing to take risk to make more by taking risks. If you overvalue work you will miss out on other great things life has to offer. If you overvalue success, failure can seem much more unpleasant. But there are ways to achieve massive success and fail along the way. That’s actually the path to success really. In the rest of the post I am going to answer the above questions and explain the above points while staying around the central topic that you can experience defeat without experiencing agony. Life is too short to get distraught over temporary setbacks. Let’s start off by acknowledging that wins and losses are two sides to the same coin, they balance each other out.
Don’t value wins more than losses, they’re equals.
Wins and losses in sports, as in life, are two sides to the same coin. If I flip a coin it can be heads or tails, it can’t be both. However, they’re both exactly the same odds, they’re equals. Winning and losing are equals as well. We either win or we lose, but a loss is never truly defeat. At least, not if you learn from the loss. I find that in all sports at all ages wins are massively overvalued by comparison to losses. If the goal of a sport is only to win than you will experience tremendous pain if you fail to do so. But why? Why should a win be the priority? I’m not saying I’m advocating losing, no one LIKES to lose, but why should we be so upset if we lose, that’s my question. Some of my best practices at Penn State I got my butt whooped by National Champions, and I was excited! Sometimes you need a good kick in the butt to remind you to keep working hard. Was it fun? Not really, but I learned a lot about myself in those losses than I ever did beating up wrestlers I knew I could handle.
Growth does NOT come from comfort, it comes from adversity. Winning isn’t adversity, it’s actually the complete opposite! “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one” I love this quote for this point because often we desire wins and success because we think it will make life easier. However, success early and often is actually more detrimental than losing, at least in the long term. Winning and always having success can quickly build complacent behavior. Win too often, too easily and you will think that you’ve peaked. True winners know they’re never perfect, they don’t act like it. As a coach I understand I have a lot to learn, and I will NEVER think I am the best I can be. I will find new ways to improve so that I can best help my athletes and their families. When my athletes lose I hurt for them but I also know it means I have more work to do! But if Wins and Losses are equal which do we value more? That’s somewhat difficult to answer but I would always say to value losses more, as long as you view them as lessons.
I previously wrote about the mindset I teach a lot of my athletes, to Win or Get Better. In that post I used a quote from Nelson Mandela “I never lose. I either win, or I learn.” Wins are great but it is our losses, our adversity that makes us stronger, better, wiser and overall shapes us. When you go to the gym, it is failure that makes you stronger. The destruction of your muscles builds them. If you only ever used weights you can do easily, you will never get stronger. If you try and fail you are going to get stronger. The same goes for wrestling. If you are taking risks, having fun, letting it fly, who cares if you lose? The approach may change for certain situations but ultimately Wins and Losses are equal but it is losses that teach us lessons. So in live wrestling at practice, or matches that don’t mean anything, why not take risks? Why not try stuff and see if MAYBE you can hit it? Worst case scenario you lose a match and have a story to tell and lessons to learn.
You will learn more about yourself from a loss than you ever would from a win. You will experience adversity, develop the ability to reflect and grow. You will also get to understand how you handle losses. As a coach I never care if an athlete loses, why? Because it’s my job to grow them as a person, and a wrestler. I can really only do that through losses. I can give feedback in a win, but losses are the time for them to build back up. There is an old Japanese adage “Fall seven, rise eight.” which I love because as long as we RISE back up we are stronger for it. The pressure to win can easily crack a person but if the pressure is relieved by this desire to learn no matter the result than it becomes much easier to win. But as I have mentioned many times, failure is what brings us forward, not success. Success is a byproduct of failure, so long as we learn from it. The most successful people in history were once failures.
The Most Successful People were once Losers.
Many of our greatest businessmen and leaders started out as failures in their careers. Almost everyone knows who Steve Jobs is. Unless you lived under a rock the last 20 years you have been impacted by his life in at least some regard. The renown founder of Apple was a refugee with little to him but a drive to create something transcendent. But what many people don’t know is that after founding Apple he was fired from the company. He was forced out of a company he created and in turn tried to start another company but he couldn’t find any traction, it seemed like his life was going downhill fast. But then, Apple realized they needed him just as much as he needed them. He came back into the ranks and revitalized Apple, they were able to begin a resurgence that led to the massive company everyone knows and loves today. Jobs was once quoted saying “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.” He learned from this failure that no matter what happens he loved work, and he didn’t care if he failed because he valued just going for it that much more. Steve Jobs will always be remembered for his successes but he was who he was because of his failures.
Another great example of a person who failed many many times only to become one of the most successful women alive was J.K. Rowling. The famous author of the Harry Potter books was once a frantic mess hinging on the edge of homelessness and despair. She was broke, a single mother following a divorce, she described her situation in a Harvard commencement speech, “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. ” It is hard to believe that someone who is now worth over a billion dollars was once nearly homeless. In fact, she failed a lot before she found the success that would change her life forever and make her into who we know today. She was rejected by 12 different publishers before one finally gave the Harry Potter books a chance. She failed but each failure led her to where she would become successful. In life we are guided by our victories but we learn from our defeats. Failure is the best teacher of all, because as I stated previously, it’s the only way we can grow.
We all grow up viewing failure as a negative, when it really is positive. We just need to see it as such. One of the most famous scientists in the history of the human race, Albert Einstein once said “Failure is success in progress.” Einstein is another famous “loser” because early in his life he wasn’t supposed to amount to anything. He had trouble speaking until nearly 9 years old, he was constantly getting in trouble, and he wasn’t a perfect student. But he became perhaps the most influential scientist in human history. We need to learn that we need to fail in order to succeed.
Another scientist who failed a lot was Thomas Edison. My favorite Edison quote is about how many times he failed to make his lightbulb work, “I have not failed, I have simply found 10,000 ways that won’t work!” Imagine if Edison had given up after the 10th try, or the 100th, or the 1000th. Someone else would be known as the inventor of the lightbulb, the literal symbol for an idea! Failure is what makes us better, so long as we continue to learn from them. Edison failed and iterated on his design until he got it right. That is how we need to approach wrestling and life. That is how we use failure to succeed. You must try and then fail until we become better, if we become so good we can’t fail, we try something new! Life is about growth, the process, not about the results or the destinations. We should always act like we have never arrived, we are always on our way up the mountain. One thing we always need to do as athletes, as coaches, is reach back down and help the next one in line up the mountain with us!
Life is Not Zero-Sum, but Sports are. This needs to Change:
Back in January Olympic and World Champion Jordan Burroughs started quite the uproar in the wrestling community when he posted about why he believes Participation trophies are a good thing. It caused QUITE the uproar because the wrestling community is a bit old school, tends to be a bit more conservative and blue collar and the idea of participation trophies is crazy past the age of 5 to most in our sport. Now, there’s a pretty easy explanations for that, because wrestling is a zero-sum game. Zero-sum essentially means that there’s only two outcomes, like flipping a coin. You either get heads, or tails. In wrestling, and most sports for that matter, you either win, or you lose. In some sports you can draw, but those are exceptions really. Wrestling is zero-sum, there are winners and losers. The entire point of this post is to illustrate that there is no true agony in losing, if you frame it properly. However, there is an issue with trying to convince athletes and parents that there’s no agony in defeat. Because no one WANTS to lose. Trust me, I get it. Losing sucks! It’s hard for me to get athletes to buy into a Win or Get better mentality because so many have this furious desire to win. They’re heartbroken when they lose, but I need them to see it differently. You can still be upset about a loss, but learn from it quickly to not make that mistake twice. Why do you need to learn to ignore a loss? Because there’s no winning or losing in wrestling. Wrestling should not be zero-sum, because life isn’t.
Often, coaches and wrestlers will say that wrestling is a direct reflection of life. I have said that this week even. But, wrestling is a reflection of life insofar as the lesson you learn in wrestling are life lessons. How to handle adversity, how to become disciplined, how to focus, etc. you learn these lessons through the sport, but most of them you learn through LOSING. You don’t typically deal with adversity in a win. You don’t learn discipline without first lacking it and being corrected (yelled at or what have you). You learn focus by LOSING focus and getting taught how to control it. Life is not zero-sum. There’s winners and there’s those who haven’t won YET. You’re never a loser in life until you give up on trying to win. If you accept defeat you have lost, but if you never back down, never accept defeat you are never a loser. Just a winner on their way to winning. Life is not zero-sum because in 99% of cases someone’s success doesn’t actually hinder your own. Bill Gates being one of the richest men in the world and having a computer company didn’t stop Apple and Steve Jobs from building their empire also. I type this on a PC and text people on my iPhone. Both won. Amazon and Walmart compete sure, but people still buy from both companies and make both of them massively successful year in and year out. Why? because though they compete people shop through both of them for different reasons. Jeff Bezo’s and Elon Musk are both going back and forth for the two richest men in the world, they both also launch rockets as a side hustle, but they didn’t prevent the other from rising in wealth and fame. Do you see my point here? Life is not zero-sum. Sure there are situational winners and losers, but very few losses in life are permanent. If you get fired from your job, you can often find another one with a little bit of effort. If you lose your significant other in a nasty break up you can find love again. Life is not zero-sum it’s infinite. So it’s time to treat wrestling and sports the same.
Now, let me preface that I understand wrestling will always have a winner and loser. I’m not advocating going to a “Both guys win!” format. What I am saying is that we need to devalue wins and losses and advocate for them to be handled as what they are, success. If you lace up and compete to your maximum ability, win or lose you are better than most people. A win is successful execution of your technique and skills, a loss is a successful attempt at making mistakes in order to fix them. That might sound new age of me, but it’s what I saw at Penn State. My teammates don’t care about making mistakes because they will rebound and correct it later. They can give up a takedown and not catastrophically melt down because they can always come back and win. I watched every single one of my teammates lose at some point. Whether in a match, in practice, or even in dodgeball. I notice how the best of them handle loss. They learn from it, adjust, and come back using it as fuel.
We need to prioritize effort and risk taking over the results. If I am willing to give everything I got, I take risks and I make mistakes I am better off doing that an losing than the other guy who did nothing and capitalized on my mistakes. I can learn and fix my mistakes, he can’t learn anything because he didn’t try anything. I encourage in my practice to take risks in live, put yourselves in positions. There’s no reason to WIN live, it’s just PRACTICE. It’s the perfect time to drop the E in EGO and just GO! I hate watching kids timidly circle for 45 seconds of a 1 minute go because they’re afraid to lose. If you’re afraid to lose, you forget how to win. In my post Lessons from Cael Sanderson: I talk about effort and attitude and being unafraid to lose as two major lesson I learned from my time at PSU. I am never afraid to lose as a coach, because I will learn from it. When I build dual teams I don’t expect to win the tourney, I expect to learn about what I need to do to help improve my athletes. I need to instill in my athletes this desire to go take risks, have fun, work to score points. I DON’T need to tell them to win. There’s an innate desire to go win, no coach is gonna tell a kid “Go lose!” no parent will say that either. I get the pressure to win, I get the parents wanting kids to focus on winning. If you want your kid to win in the long term, encourage them to take risks, to boldly go where others won’t. I’ll illustrate this with a quote from one of Mike Tyson’s original coaches Cus D’Amato: “The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with that matters!” I love this quote for many reasons, the coward and the hero feel the same thing. Both are nervous, both are scared, but the hero is willing to take risks and uses that fear as fuel. Do not agonize in defeat because losses don’t matter. Life will knock you down more times than you can count, but if you keep getting up you can ALWAYS win. That is why I believe that there’s no agony in defeat. Ignore the results, and win or learn.
There’s no agony in defeat because no loss can truly defeat you if you don’t cherish results!
In life so many people become a donkey chasing the carrot on the stick. It’s much the same in wrestling. We chase the wrong things, and this in turn gets us nowhere fast. If you’re so focused on the carrot you miss the world of the journey. You never know what you might miss if you chase the small things. Do me a favor, stare at your pointer finger. Notice how the world blurs out around your finger? If you look past your finger at something on the wall your finger will blur. You can see the world in front of you if you ignore the smaller more insignificant things. The same goes for wrestling if you IGNORE THE RESULTS! If you are process oriented, drive by progress not perfection, focused on the love of the sport, RESULTS WILL COME. If all you want to do is win, you might win early, but you will lose in the long term. People who focus on medals, trophies, accolades, titles, they lose long term to someone who focused on the process. My teammates at Penn States won plenty of titles, but they also failed to win many more as Youth, Middle School, and High school. I know guys who won more big tourneys in HS than some of my teammates who won Nationals, some of these guys aren’t even wrestling anymore. In fact, guys who beat my teammates in high school haven’t had nearly the same success as my teammates. Why though? They’re both still just wrestling right? Wrong. My teammates adopted a love for the process, that gets cultivated by being around others who love the sport. They don’t love to win, they love the process and that’s WHY they win.
My advice to any parent reading this, devalue winning for the rest of your athlete’s career. However long that is. Throw it away. Be proud of their effort, be proud they competed, be proud of them REGARDLESS. It will go a long way in making your relationship with them flourish. Focus on the long term process, and make it fun, they will win in the long term. Everyone’s ceiling is different. In high school there’s only 14 state champs. In College there’s only 10 national champs. There’s only 7 Olympic Champs. Each progression in our sport the ability to “win” the title shrinks. It is an honor just to compete. Frame this sport in the proper light and your athlete will win more than just accolades, they will learn how to win at life. If you go through life with a focus on the process of getting better, you’re grateful for the lessons along the way, you will win indefinitely. If you focus on the small things like titles, money, medals, etc. you will lose long term. Your focus becomes narrowed, your goals become weights that drag you down. A bird does not fly to win a title for best flier, it flies because it’s what it was meant to do. A wrestler doesn’t wrestle to win a title, they wrestle because it’s what they love, it’s what they’re meant to do. I don’t coach because I love bragging about my athlete’s accomplishments. I coach because I want to help kids achieve their dreams, become great people, and have fun and love this sport. Winning is just a byproduct of all of that.
To summarize this all, there is no agony in defeat because no one is ever truly defeated. I have known many “sure things” in life, people with everything they needed to be successful. Who floundered and didn’t do anything because they won early and got complacent. I know plenty of “losers” who are now at the top of the world because they NEVER accepted defeat, instead they kept climbing and kept focusing on the process. They win now because they’ve learned that they can’t lose. “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose” if you never treat yourself like a loser, you never are. Believe in yourself, believe in the process, devalue results, and give everything you got. Then you will see, that there’s no agony in defeat.
If you have made it this far I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading my nonsense! I am no poet, nor am I a world class author. To be honest I am always nervous when I write these because I fear they might not matter. But, if this mattered to you, if you read the whole thing and got anything out of it I ask that you share it with someone else who might find value in it. Even if this helps 10 people that will be a win for me. I love writing, I really enjoy sharing my perspectives and helping the community that has given me so much over the course of my life. So thank you once again if you’ve made it this far. I am truly grateful to you and if you have any feedback or comments please feel free to text me, I am always seeking to improve. My cell is 856-341-6271. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart- Coach Pat Higgins. Head Coach of Centurion Wrestling Club.