A Losing Battle

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, May 5, 2007

Right now on recreational fields across America, youth coaches are talking sweet to the children, telling them that winning isn't as important as trying, and that you can learn from a loss. This is just another case of adults trying to get kids to do as we say, not as we do. If you ask most pros, they'll tell you the only thing losing teaches is a bad habit. Watch the major leagues or the NBA playoffs this weekend, and it's obvious that losing also teaches blame, envy, bitterness, and inspires bench-clearing brawls.

No one likes losing, and some people would rather lose sleep, ground or their religion than a game of PlayStation. We look to the professionals for cues as to what sports ought to mean, and among the cues we take from them is how to feel about that dread condition, losing. But maybe they're the wrong people to ask.

For evidence of this, look no further than the New York Yankees, who just fired a lowly trainer as a scapegoat for their April losing streak and rash of injuries. It's a fair guess that 90 percent of the players in the Yankee clubhouse have their own trainers. But someone had to pay for the team's terrible spring and seven-game slump. Losing, George Steinbrenner announced, was "unacceptable." Marty Miller's firing was the penalty, and oddly, the Yankees had won three straight before losing last night. Steinbrenner is a genius! Bat boys and laundry room attendants beware -- you could be next.

Firing the trainer might seem cold and nonsensical, but then, the Yankees are supposed to take losing badly, a lot less well than the rest of us. They should feel different about losing seven in row than a team of weekend warriors on the Mall. For one thing, they are annually one of the most expensive teams in the world, so it's hard to suggest with a straight face that it's the journey that should matter to them, not the end result. After getting blown out by the arch-rival Boston Red Sox, Andy Pettitte called it "embarrassing" and announced that losing made him "sick to my stomach." The atmosphere in the clubhouse felt more like a place where corpses are refrigerated, not a room full of live players. Yankees Manager Joe Torre said: "You can't help it: Even though you try not to worry about the losing aspect of it, you still don't like the taste of it. You can't tell them it doesn't mean that much, because they know better."

Winning really is the whole point for them, and they don't find anything useful in losing.

The same is not necessarily true for the rest of us. Although we rarely talk about it and are loath to admit it, there is a central gap in values between our games and their games. We assume all games should mean the same to all of us, but they don't. For most of us, games are essentially playful, healthful and maybe even metaphorical outlets for larger struggles. We really can learn from losses, particularly about persevering in the face of setbacks. Placing too much emphasis on winning can actually undermine those lessons, especially for kids.

While we all understand in a general way that professional athletes differ from the rest of us, we're murky on exactly how and why. We can see just by watching that they have organic-genetic efficiency data built into their bodies that we don't. They belong in a very small physical classification, and we can only emulate them to a certain extent. What's less clear is that they also have distinctly different mental and emotional attributes as well -- they are more effective, relentless, brutal competitors. And we don't necessarily want to emulate those qualities at all.

More and more, psychologists and neuroscientists are investigating our responses to winning and losing, and some of their findings are surprising. Oliver Schultheiss, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, examined hormonal spikes in a 2004 study in which he rigged a computer board game so participants either won or lost. He found that some people have "an implicit or non-conscious need to have power, who enjoy impact or dominating others," and that when these people won, their testosterone levels surged by 10 percent. When they lost, it plummeted by 17 percent, while their cortisol, a stress hormone, also went up. These people "are much better in learning what led to a victory and much more sensitive in what has led to a downfall," he asserts.

At Boston University, education professor and sports psychologist Leonard Zaichkowsky is helping to conduct a study of how elite athletes' brain chemistry responds to winning and losing. Zaichkowsky will partner with Canadian sports psychologist Hap Davis, an adviser to the Canadian Olympic swimming team, who already has done some fascinating preliminary research using magnetic resonance imaging.

Davis, with the help of cognitive neuroscientist Mario Liotti at Simon Fraser University, studied the brains of 14 swimmers who failed to make the 2004 Canadian Olympic team. As the swimmers watched clips of themselves failing, the parahippocampus, the area implicated in cases of severe depression, lit up. In other words, the brain of an elite athlete who has lost "really resembles the head of a depressed person," Zaichkowsky says. Also, the premotor cortex, the region that plans motor actions, appeared inhibited. This suggested that athletes who have lost might have a tendency to perform poorly again -- potentially leading to what we would call a "slump."

According to Zaichkowsky, who has consulted with the Boston Celtics and the Calgary Flames among other professional teams, elite athletes rarely talk candidly about losing.

"To get them to articulate is almost impossible," he says, "other than that they always tell you, 'It sucks.' If we can get a handle on what's happening in their brain and hormonal levels, that would be terrific."

For one thing, it would suggest ways in which psychologists can help athletes improve their performance under pressure.

As laymen, we seldom discuss losing, either, except in terms of bromides. We don't really know if it's good or bad for us. And we certainly don't know how it feels to lose at the elite level.

The stance of a professional athlete toward his or her sport is completely different than ours. Rather than pretend we share the same ethos, maybe what we need to do is elucidate the differences, so as to more truly understand their pressures, motives and inner workings.

For professionals, sports are not recreational, and frequently not even healthy, either. They're a high-stakes test of mastery, and sometimes the qualities that make a champion are negative, not positive, as recent steroid scandals suggest. If we understood that better, then we might assign the right value to them, and their feats and disgraces.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company