The Importance of Losing Well

I missed the Wimbledon Men’s Single’s Final – at least in real time, being abroad at the time – but having now had the opportunity to catch up with it, I think two things deserve celebrating. The first of these – Andy Murray’s victory – is perhaps a little obvious, although that is hardly to detract from it.

The second is more easily overlooked, although it was also noticed by Matthew Syed, writing in The Times: I am referring to Novak Djokovic’s grace in defeat. It does not require more than a rudimentary grasp of its rules and scoring system to understand that tennis is, at any level, a competitive sport, and a Wimbledon final and a Grand Slam win especially so. When playing the game is your profession, it’s surely safe to assume that you do not walk onto court with the intention of losing. (Although Syed has previously had interesting things to say about the winning mindset in an earlier article about an interview with Andy Murray.)

It would be interesting to interview Mr Syed in turn to ask why this particular aspect of the event struck him so forcefully (although we should perhaps also recognise that writing newspaper columns is his profession). Perhaps it is a simple reflection of a contemporary culture in which we hear rather more often than is comfortable (or even tolerable) phrases like “there are no prizes for coming second”. This not only ignores Mr Djokovic’s receipt of £800,000 for not quite finishing first (and the finalists’ respective winnings were increased by 39% over the previous year’s prize money): it ignores the fact that finishing second last year was a significant achievement and personal elevation for Mr Murray, and a spur to future greater things.

But it ignores two other points. The first is that losing not only very much is an option: for nearly everyone, it’s pretty much inevitable. Emotional maturity suggests that we accept the fact and embrace it positively – or accept a lifetime of being not just a bad loser but – in the eyes of at least some others – a lesser human being. And no amount of tantrums, ejection of toys from prams and displays of bad grace will change the fact that we were defeated: being a bad loser does not even have the merit of achieving something – unless a reputation for immaturity is seen as some kind of prize. (Matthew Syed is also, I think, entirely correct to draw analogies between the worlds of sport and business (as we have also done in the past) in acknowledging that both arenas have been known to see shows of ill-grace in defeat as somehow demonstrating intensity of caring or passion. Yet this argument stands only as far as we are willing to believe that courtesy and ambition cannot co-exist.)

In terms of achieving our full potential, our reactions and responses to defeat are as telling – if not more so – than the fact of losing. As Murray has shown, displays of ill-grace or tantrums are not the best way of demonstrating a player’s commitment: the best route is to choose to learn from adversity and defeat rather than allowing it to undermine confidence and self-belief – and, in turn, the capacity to perform to the best of our personal ability. The attitude that defeat can be a powerful and inspiring learning experience is echoed by Murray’s coach, Ivan Lendl, interviewed the day after the Wimbledon final:

If he had not play[ed] last year’s final then he would not have been prepared that well this time,” explained the Czech-born American. “It was a great experience to have. Any time you play a Major final it’s very important.”

The best approach to losing your first three Grand Slam title finals is not to assume that you achieved as much as you ever will, but to qualify for a fourth and to not just draw on previous experience but also to believe that this time you can win. As Syed pointed out in his book, Bounce, gathering both emotional and physical bruises along the way is a part of the process of developing our true potential: the Japanese ice-skater, Shizuka Arakawa, fell over more than 20,000 times before she became the 2006 Olympic champion.

So we applaud Andy Murray not just for his victory – and for his good grace and humour in facing a full day’s PR duties the following day after only an hour’s sleep – but for not letting previous defeats stand in the way of future success. But let’s also not forget to applaud Novak Djokovic  – not just for applauding Murray in the opening words of his post-match interview, but for a later sentence from it:

It was a pleasure to be part of this final.”

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