It’s hard to define the sore-loser mentality clearly.
Or even the over-the-top winner mentality.
But it is the reaction to a loss, particularly in professional sports, that can create an unflattering trend.
Brent Walker, past president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and associate athletic director for championship performance at Columbia University, said that although the reactions are fundamentally different across the sports landscape, the reality is that dealing with losing is about how somebody’s identity is impacted.
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“There’s plenty of interesting research out there that gives you an idea of what’s going on in someone’s mind after a loss,” Walker said. “And on the fan side, there’s an interesting phenomena that shows you how a fan identifies with a team.
“If the team is winning, many fans tend to use pronouns such as ‘we’ or ‘I,’ in describing the team. If the losses start to mount, or the team runs on hard times, the pronouns change to ‘they’ or ‘them’ pretty quick. They begin to easily separate from it.”
Another NFL season will be starting soon followed by the NBA’s and NHL’s. The players and fans of these major pro sports are passionate.
Very passionate. And some don’t take losing well.
“The competitive athlete thrives in the battle of dominance that comes with competition. While dealing with defeat is a part of the game, a loss to the competitive athlete is more than the score at the end of the game. It is the mindset of that athlete that determines how he or she will deal with defeat,” said Dr. Yolanda Bruce Brooks, founder and principal of Sports Life Transitions.
“Professional athletes understand what professional means and most are prepared to deal with the responsibilities that come with being among the elite few of your sport,” she said. “They also understand professional sports is big business and they get paid to work or lose their jobs.
“No athlete is indispensable or irreplaceable,” Books said.
As the old saying goes, you’ll know it when you see it.
In January, the New York Giants were crushed by the Green Bay Packers 38-13 on the road in a wild-card playoff game. The Giants were accused of trashing the inside of a United Airlines plane on their way home after the loss.
After losing Super Bowl 50 to Denver, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton walked out of the postgame, NFL-mandated news conference in an understandably frustrated, but pouting manner.
He gave one-word answers, then departed the stage after about three minutes. This from a superstar whose touchdown celebrations and wins during the regular season had created a major social following.
Andrew Bynum’s and Lamar Odom’s flagrant foul episode in the closing game of a 2011 playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks was brutal.
Trailing by as much as 30-plus points and about to be swept out of the playoffs, the Lakers’ Bynum and Odom were ejected after hard fouls on Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea late in the game. Barea took a forearm from Bynum while airborne.
In 1991, the Detroit Pistons walked off the court in defeat before the game was over in an Eastern Conference playoff series against the Chicago Bulls.
Ronda Rousey took it to a dangerous level when she said she had contemplated suicide after losing a high-profile UFC match against Holly Holm in 2015.
Then, there are the fans.
Residents of Vancouver remember 2011 well.
The Boston Bruins had just beaten the Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals when rioting across the city broke out.
Some 100,000 spectators had crowded a viewing area two blocks long to watch the series finale.
At least 140 people were injured, one critically, and some 300 people were charged with various counts of public disturbance in direct connection to the unrest.
In fairness to Canada, it isn’t just Vancouver that has historically rioted after losses in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Similar incidents have occurred in Edmonton and Montreal. Such fan actions are nothing new in the U.S. either.
There have been many altercations among NFL fans through the years, including a few shootings on parking lots outside stadiums.
Since winning the NBA title in 2011, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has suffered through heavy doses of losses.
This past season saw the Mavericks miss the playoffs for the second time since winning the title, not able to overcome a 2-13 start.
“I try to use it as motivation to work harder and smarter to find opportunities to get back on track,” Cuban said.
Losses can come in many forms, be it games, injuries or reduced production.
“There’s this idea that sports builds character,” Walker said. “But the reality is that the word ‘sport’ means many things to many people all over the world.”
Walker pointed to golf, and the personal accountability of professionals to call penalties on themselves, as opposed to a sport like NASCAR.
“With NASCAR, they say if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” Walker said. “With golf, most sports fans can’t understand why a player would call a penalty on himself.”
Dr. Amy Baltzell, former Olympian and crew mate of the 1995 America’s Cup all-women’s America3 racing team, knows both sides of the losing equation intimately.
“I can spend hours talking about what happened to us in that America’s Cup,” she said.
Having put together a mostly all-women’s crew for the 1995 races, Bill Koch’s America3 team had a five-minute lead in the final race of the Citizen Cup Final series against Dennis Conner’s Stars and Stripes team.
Dave Dellenbaugh, the only male on the crew that came aboard in the final nine races, made a tactical error that allowed Conner’s crew to overcome the deficit and reach the finish line just ahead of A3.
“To say it was difficult doesn’t really do justice for what happened,” Baltzell said. “We beat Stars and Stripes in the semifinal, but they had already managed to negotiate a deal where all boats in the semifinals advanced to the finals.”
“It was tough to stomach because you actually didn’t know if you’d really lost.”
Fans see the athletes in their work environments. They don’t see their day-to-day lives.
“There’s a huge amount of focus about being the best. Sometimes those emotions get the best of them,” said Dr. Matt Johnson, sports psychology consultant and former TCU professor. “Part of being a great athlete is learning how to control those emotions and channel those into improving.
“Sometimes athletes have things going on outside their professional life that may get in the way so they do the best they can to keep those aside and focus on competing. There are game plans. Those are mental skills.” he said.
“Just like physical skills, those are mental skills that need to be practiced. When you practice, you’ll see a big difference.”
Baltzell, who is coordinator of Sports Psychology Track at Boston University, said the inability to deal effectively with failure is a real problem starting at the youth sports level.
“This is really an epidemic problem,” she said. “Of course, we have kids trained much earlier into better quality performers, but they have no skills in how to handle losing.
“Many of today’s athletes have spent 30 hours a week for 10 to 15 years in very dominating roles. Then, at the first instance of failure, they shut down and this internal monster of self criticism takes over.”
Tim Neal, director of athletic training program at Concordia University-Ann Arbor, said he agrees that high school athletes are likely the most influenced by what they see playing out in the professional level.
“They watch sports and are into sports. They identify themselves with athletes. I don’t think they have enough life experience behind them to realize there’s a big, wide world out there besides sports,” Neal said.
Baltzell said the reactions at the athlete level have become more severe over time, with serious consequences.
“In general, the athletes with problems, that I see, can’t stay engaged if someone is better than they are,” Baltzell said. “They also have this superstar pressure on their faces and when things go bad, it’s not just burnout as the end result.
“I’ve seen them start cutting themselves, uncontrolled vomiting, doing drugs and having too much sex. There’s just no way of coping and really no one’s been teaching them how to handle success.”
On the fan side, the collective reaction can turn disastrous.
Walker said post-game violence has more to do with anonymity than any kind of reaction to the win or loss.
“That’s one of those things where everyone just kind of joins the melee because there’s not an identification of who’s doing it,” he said. “Another byproduct of that is the bystander.
“Part of that reaction is that there are a lot of bystanders waiting on someone to do something.”
Brooks says the influence goes deeper than that.
“I see trends of aggressive behaviors modeled by parents in youth sports. Kids are emulating what they see in those around them, starting with parents. Fortunately, not all parents are sports-crazed or exhibit inappropriate, aggressive behaviors,” Brooks said.
“However, it’s no secret that the subset of ‘helicopter’ and ‘Velcro’ parents engaged in boundary issues which negatively affected their children. They also projected their own unfulfilled dreams or unrealistic goals on their kids.
“By the time these young talented sportsters entered high school certain unhealthy, aggressive and or maladaptive behaviors were ingrained,” she said. “What we may see when they reach the pros most likely did not start there. In most cases, it has been years in the making.”
Walker said personal identity is the key aspect to learning the difference in how athletes deal with losses, and the end results create a broad spectrum throughout the landscape.
In reference to what Bynum and Odom did in 2011, Walker said it was the result of an enormous amount of pressure centered on the tradition and history of the Lakers, and the signal of the beginning of a transition for the franchise.
“No one wants to be associated with the reality of what was happening,” Walker said. “As an individual, there’s a chance that a loss like that stigmatizes your career.
“Maybe it’s the idea that fans, coaches and even themselves wonder if they were good enough to be a Laker. Many probably felt the Lakers, on paper, should have been better and then perhaps people start to question the legacy. That’s a whole different level of embarrassment.”
When the Lakers felt the game and series slipping away, they reacted in a physical way.
“There are only four things you can control. You can control your body language, you can control your effort, control your attitude, and you can control your thinking,” Johnson said. “All these things have to do with not only focus, but how you respond when things don’t go your way.
“Failure is part of the game. It’s all about how you respond to it.”
Social media effect
The good, bad and ugly of sports is inflated through social media. The effects are instant and strong.
“Social media is a powerful tool, if engaged effectively. Fans and supporters have direct access to athletes and vice versa. This can provide a much-needed boost from words of encouragement, recommendations and suggestions or just a great connection when needed,” Brooks said.
“However, critics and vicious foes can become a negative distractor. Leagues and teams have hired full-time staff to monitor comments by athletes. Social media is a communication tool that should be used thoughtfully and strategically.
“Random comments — especially when angry or frustrated — have lasting, far-reaching and often negative effects.”
One remedy for social media is to stay away from it.
“Social media can play any role that the athlete lets it play. It’s really up to the athlete to take control of that. You can’t control what comes up on social media.
“What you can control is whether you look at social media,” Johnson said. “For many athletes, the best thing to do is not get engaged in social media. There are going to be haters. There are going to be fans.”
Getting past the embarrassment and dealing with it head-on is Baltzell’s goal for her patients.
“There has to be a change in our culture,” she said. “At some point, there has to be a value for effort, intention and improvement.
“This kind of thing is passed down from generation to generation and we create some kind of hell where a kid feels inadequate and eventually only values winning above all else. I like to win, too, but there’s a struggle over time to keep that going.”
Neal says the best way to deal with a loss is through early education.
“You have to better educate them that not everybody wins. Not everybody gets trophies. People are used to getting trophies just for showing up. Then all of a sudden, you’re not winning, you’re not the champion and you’re not being celebrated,” Neal said. “We go over the top in celebrating our champions.
“People, from a young age on, need to be educated on how to manage adversity. Life is full of losses.”
Does sports still build character?
“No. Sports is a great way to display character,” Neal said. “You can’t be smacking people around. If you start smacking people around or throwing things in a work environment, you’re going to get fired.
“I don’t think sports in itself does that (build character). If it does, everyone who plays sports would be of sound character. We all know that’s not true.”
Dr. Yolanda Bruce Brooks, founder and principal of Sports Life Transitions, provides eight effective coping mechanisms for dealing with aggressive acts in sports:
1. Meditation: Train the brain to focus.
2. Relaxation: Let go of tension.
3. Biofeedback: List to your body’s needs. If your body is tired, get some sleep.
4. Nourishment: Eat healthy by way of small, nutritious and frequent meals.
5. Yoga/tai chi: Stretch by performing slow-moving rhythmical exercise.
6. Self care: Focus on taking care of yourself.
7. Exercise: Walk and stretch, which increase the heart rate and oxygenation of the bloodstream.
8. Taking breaks: Disrupt the stress cycle.