From LeBron James to Phil Mickelson: First place rewards but second place teaches

Sally Jenkins
Columnist June 21, 2013

Say this for LeBron James: Just when he seems about to sink under the lead weight of embarrassment and expectations, he rises above them with chiseled potency. The same goes for swimmer Diana Nyad, disappointed four times in her impracticable, jellyfish-tortured attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, yet about to try again. And whether you apply the term “winner” or “loser” to Phil Mickelson, give the six-time runner-up of the U.S. Open this much: He does things with his whole heart.

All of these people have something in common: They repeatedly put their competitive reputations and vanity at risk. Somewhere in an avocado grove back home in California, Mickelson is a slumped-over mess. But there is something deeply interesting — and worth admiring — in the way Mickelson keeps chasing the U.S. Open even though it means submitting himself to almost radiological exposure. At Merion last week he led for the better part of three days, only to play some of his worst golf in the final round. Afterward he was frank about his mistakes and what they cost him.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

We don’t much like to discuss losing, though it’s a far more common experience than winning. But Mickelson went right at the topic. Had he won, “It would have changed the way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record,” he said. By losing, “I just think of heartbreak.”

Mickelson’s honesty, though he may not know it right now, is an indispensable key to changing the outcome next time around. Here is a scientific fact: Athletes who don’t shy from failure — and who examine it honestly — tend to eventually come out winners.

In 2009, two researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Jonah Berger and Devin G. Pope, asked the question: “Can losing during a competitive task motivate individuals and teams . . . to perform better overall?” They analyzed more than 45,000 college basketball games and 18,000 NBA contests and found that trailing slightly at halftime actually led to an increase in winning percentage. NBA teams that trailed by small margins won approximately 6 percent more often than expected.

Why would this be? Simply put, champions are good losers, in the sense that they learn from reversals and respond to them — and that’s a lesson we can import from them. Winning and losing are learned behaviors.

A few years ago researchers asked Canadian swimmers who had performed poorly in the Olympic trials to watch video replays of their failures and took functional magnetic resolution imaging (fMRI) brain scans as they did so. The neural activity of an athlete who has lost, not surprisingly, looks very much like that of someone who is profoundly depressed.

But then researchers did what’s called “cognitive intervention.” Rather than just focusing on the swimmers’ failures, the researchers asked the swimmers to examine their races in technical terms, the aspects of what they did wrong and what they would change. The second set of brain scans showed less emotional, depression activity in the amygdala and more activation in the motor and frontal parts of the brain that control focus. The result: The swimmers all showed improvements in their next performances.

It’s not often an athlete is as embarrassed as James was by the Spurs in Game 3 of the NBA Finals last week, when he shot just 7 for 21 — or as honest. “I played like $&#*,” he said. But then he added, “As dark as it was last night, it can’t get darker than that. I guarantee I’ll be better tomorrow, for sure.” And he was, throwing down a triple-double in Game 6, including 32 points, and followed that up with 37 in Game 7, including the critical basket in the final minute.

What made James able to respond to an embarrassing loss with a redeeming game? For one thing, his ability to let go of the failure, a component so critical to high performance that NASA teaches it to astronauts who can’t afford to make a second mistake by dwelling too long on the first one; they are allowed just “three seconds of remorse.”

Researchers have found that the brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability to adapt, is pronounced in athletes who master their crafts. They are literally able to reshape their brains through thousands of hours of deliberate practice and repetitive experiences. An MRI of James’s or Mickelson’s brain would show that they are structurally different from yours or mine — not by nature but because of learning. That neuroplasticity is even sport-specific.

In December 2012, a group of Korean researchers compared the brain scans of speedskaters against those of beginners. Among the things they found in their report, published in the journal The Cerebellum, was that the skaters, who skate counterclockwise and have to turn left constantly and make visual adjustments and decisions while balancing on their right foot, had larger right hemispheres in their cerebellums.

In August 2010, another teams of researchers led by Ed Roberts of the Imperial College London did a similar study but used diffusion tensor imaging to examine the neural connections of a dozen karate fighters who achieved black belts with an average of 14 years experience. They found that the white matter of the fighters’ cerebellums — the complex network of neuron connections that carries signals from one cell to another — was structurally different from that of beginners who exercised but had no expertise.

This suggests that athletes are always teaching themselves something, even when they suffer repetitive losses. That’s important because it means is that we underappreciate losing, spend far too much time examining victories and not crediting losses. Nyad knows on a gut level that good losers have an interesting and valuable self-control: They manage to maintain their effort, standard and comportment even in the face of cuts to their souls. She has continued to try to swim the Florida Straits year after year despite debilitating stings, shoulder injuries and asthma attacks. When you ask why, she says, “Who dares, wins.”

Sports history abounds with examples of great athletes who learned from terrible repetitive losses — and we forget that about them. We forget that Ivan Lendl lost four Grand Slam tennis finals before he won his first. Or that Andre Agassi lost three. My friend Pat Summitt lost seven women’s Final Fours before she won her first championship ring and went on to eight NCAA titles and an all-time record of 1,098 victories. What she learned about losing was “too many people opt out,” she says, “because they fear failure. They’re afraid of keeping score.”

The record book shows that Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson finished second in major championships more often than they won them. My father, a Hall of Fame sportswriter who just attended his 60th U.S. Open, told the following story after watching Mickelson lose at Merion. On a visit to Palmer’s home many years ago, he admired a beautiful table that Palmer had inlaid with his gold medals from his major titles. But he also noticed that Palmer had also inlaid three silver medals from his three most painful runner-up finishes in the Open. Asked why he included those, Palmer replied, “Well, they look good, too.” To Palmer, his second places showed how hard he tried, that he pushed all his chips on the table.

The greats are willing to break their own hearts. Second isn’t bad, my father likes to say. “It means you could have been first,” he says.

For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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