The Art Of Losing

Surviving a bad season... or a few.

By Michelle Giesen and Kristoffer Pedlar

From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
— J.R.R Tolkien
Losing is the hardest part of being a sports fan. It’s something we learn how to do over time. (Photo by sigckgc )

Losing is the hardest part of being a sports fan. It’s something we learn how to do over time. (Photo by sigckgc )

Losing sucks. It’s the worst. But in the world of sports, it is an inevitability.  Not even Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls could win every game.

How you deal with losing is the important thing. Will you let it break you? or make you stronger? The feeling of losing is ultimately what makes the thrill of winning so incredible.  

So, since you’re going to spend most of your sports fandom dealing, rationalizing and coming to terms with losing, you might as well figure out how to lose well, right? If you’re not already doing this, you’re going to have to at some point.  Dynasties fall, great teams wind up in the crapper, eras end, but sometimes you can find joy in watching a whole new one emerge from the rubble that is left behind.

Everybody hurts...sometimes

Some teams that are supposed to win, do just that. The Yankees of the late 1990s, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, the Oilers of the 1980s and the Tom Brady era in New England were some of the best dynasties in sports history. Everyone knew it and no team that played them could do a damned thing to stop them. The Bulls won 6 championships in 8 years. The Yankees won 4 championships in 5 years. The Oilers won 5 Stanley Cups in 7 years and since 2002, Tom Brady has won or been involved in 7 Super Bowls. More recently, LeBron James himself has been a part of the last 7 NBA Finals (including this year) with both Miami and Cleveland.

Sports is an emotional game. Wins feel great, losses sting. (Photo by Keith Allison)

Sports is an emotional game. Wins feel great, losses sting. (Photo by Keith Allison)

While these teams may qualify as dynasties, they also couldn’t keep winning forever.  The Chicago Bulls went through a huge rebuilding process after Michael Jordan retired …again. The Yankees are currently in the midst of what seems like a successful rebuild, but it has taken time and patience. The Oilers franchise hit rock bottom and just this season finally made it to the playoffs after 11 years on the sidelines. The Miami Heat, as well, are a shell of their former self and the city of Cleveland is just happy it finally won something after all of these years. 
 
Losing happens to everybody:  the Bulls, the Oilers, the Heat the Yankees; to good players, great players and eventually to your team too. 
 
So how can we, as fans, live through a tough season without swearing off sports forever? without tossing our jerseys away or selling off our season tickets? Even in the worst of times, there has to be something to bring us back to the ballpark, the rink, the gridiron, the court, the pitch. What can we do to get through a season with no champagne, no bat flip, and no buzzer beater? 

Accentuate the Positive

When your team is just plain terrible, barely watchable, when the galactic empire seems to be falling around you and the dark side is taking over; find your Luke or Leia. Focus on “the New Hope”. Every team, even the godawful ones, offer some glimmer of hope.  The Padres have Wil Myers, the Sabres have Jack Eichel, the Angels have Mike Trout. If you look deep enough into your team you will find a silver lining, your reason to hope.  You can spend a season focusing on Trout’s yearly MVP chase, Wil Myers’ ascent to superstardom, the development of a Jack Eichel, Joel Embiid or Kristaps Porzingis and it should be just enough to keep you entertained, and focused on a brighter future ahead. 
 
 Hope is there. You just have to find it. 

When your team sucks, find the silver lining to getting you through a tough season. Focus on individual accomplishments of your team. (Photo by Keith Allison)

When your team sucks, find the silver lining to getting you through a tough season. Focus on individual accomplishments of your team. (Photo by Keith Allison)

Focus Forward

Focus on Marcus Stroman and his quest to become an ace, or Kevin Pillar and his All-Star caliber year or even Devon Travis and his evolution into an everyday player.  Each is likely to be a part of the future of the team and their development this season is paramount to the next successful wave of Blue Jay playoff memories. The development of younger players is a small glimpse into the future of your team. Use that glimpse to pull you through a season that has gone off the rails.  
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Alternately, it is a lot easier to accept the losing and failure if you can already see it coming. There are options to dealing with an unexpectedly disappointing season.

Option 1: Stay the Course

Keep the faith and hope this one terrible season is but a blip on the radar, an outlier, a mere bump on the road back to something greater. 
 
The San Antonio Spurs are widely considered one of the best-built franchises in all of the sport. They have won a number of championships and when they aren’t winning them, they are right in the thick of the battle.  They’re built for now and for the future. Any fan in the world would take that kind of success, but the Spurs have had to persevere.  

The Spurs franchise has embraced consistency and has used defeat to empower their team. Consistent Spurs | Photo by Wbryhn

The Spurs franchise has embraced consistency and has used defeat to empower their team. Consistent Spurs | Photo by Wbryhn

In the 1998-99 season, Tim Duncan and David Robinson led the Spurs to a championship victory; in the next season they were eliminated in the first round by the Phoenix Suns. It happened again after they won in 2006-07; two seasons later they were eliminated in the first round by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.  In 2013-14 they won another championship in their second straight Finals appearance. The next year they were once again ousted in the first round, this time by the Clippers.  
 
 Any other franchise would have taken those first round losses and made big changes, traded away players, fired a coach perhaps.  Not the Spurs.  Their resilience and an unchanging core of players continue to make them one of the most consistently successful teams in the NBA.  Spurs management understands that sometimes from the biggest disappointments and letdowns can come an even bigger success.  Players learn from losses, grow from defeat and hitting the reset button is not always the best option for a franchise. Sometimes you have to lose in order to learn how to win.  
 
Maybe a tough loss is what your team needs to come back strong next year and take the next step toward a championship.  This is what teams like the Oilers, Celtics, Falcons, Leafs, and Raptors are all hoping after suffering tough losses this year. 

Option 2: Blow it up

A rebuild isn’t always the best play as the Spurs franchise can attest to. Rebuilding doesn’t guarantee you anything other than change. One needs only to look at the Edmonton Oilers who took 11 years to get back to the NHL playoffs. That was in spite of 4 number one overall picks during that time.  They hoped that losing would eventually breed winning in the form of top draft picks. Many of their top picks didn’t pan out as expected and the losses continued to pile up despite their incredible luck. 
 
It is luck, however, that can sometimes instantly guarantee your team that much sought after turnaround. A number one overall pick, especially in hockey or basketball, can sometimes be enough on its own to turn the fortune of your team around.  Sometimes cheering for your team to lose is actually more exciting than hoping they win the odd game.
  
Lebron James, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Peyton Manning are just a few players that absolutely changed the hopes and maybe the destinies of the franchises that drafted them.  These players were instant successes and offered new life and hope to their success-starved fanbases. For one team a losing season could offer such a talent as the consolation prize.  
 
It’s not all bad. 

Being a fan means supporting your team through thick and thin. (Photo by Damonify)

Being a fan means supporting your team through thick and thin. (Photo by Damonify)

Losing happens all the time. At the end of the day, whether it’s championship banners or tanking for a top pick, fans stay loyal.   

The art of being a loyal fan is standing by your team whether they're winning or not. It's rooting for them to beat the odds and win a championship or the plan B alternative: vie for the bottom of the standings to happily get the top draft pick. It's continuing to buy seats and watch games and go to the park/stadium/arena even if the team has completely bottomed out. Once you've chosen a team to support - don't be a fickle fan. There's nothing wrong with the bandwagon: everyone's welcome, but a true fan stands by even when there is very little to cheer for. When the usual consistency flies out the window and it seems like they team as a whole has never hit a ball, sunk a basket or scored a goal before. The bad times help us appreciate the good.

And sometimes from the ashes comes a fresh new life.