By Dr. Peter Lucchio
Clinical Psychologist
The Psychology of Losing
Dr. Peter Lucchio, PsyD

Calling someone a loser is the worst kind of condemnation in our current polarized culture. But “Losers,” a Netflix documentary series, shows another side of losing: athletes who have overcome highly public defeats in ways that can inspire all athletes to be more resilient when faced with a devastating loss.

Here are five takeaways (parents should note that some of the content in “Losers,” rated TV-MA, may not be suitable for children):

1. Everyone fails.  The best athletes you know have likely failed continuously throughout their career. One of the greatest athletes of all time, Michael Jordan, was once quoted as saying, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”

From this perspective, failure is a stepping-stone to success. We as a culture could benefit from helping athletes understand failure and that losing is often part of winning.

2. Sports, for better or worse, can shape a young life. “Losers” depicts several athletes across their lifespan, beginning as child athletes. Participation in sport can provide opportunities for children to develop kinesthetic awareness, social skills, self-confidence and the ability to manage adversity. Sport can also help children learn how to win and lose with grace, situations we face throughout adulthood.

The darker side of child participation in sport is also depicted in “Losers,”  when the emphasis is on winning at all costs or when a child’s participation in sport becomes an extension of the parents’ unmet needs.  These contexts can contribute to identity issues and difficulties handling failure in young athletes.

3. Grit has value, even in defeat. In her work studying grit, Angela Duckworth – a psychologist and professor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania – defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”

Working on our own grittiness is learning how to tolerate and accept failure, loss and disappointment as part of pursuing a meaningful goal.

4. A winning mindset manages losing better. Carol Dweck, a researcher and professor of psychology at Stanford University, has studied how beliefs about the challenges we face determine whether we’re successful. In her book “Mindset,” Dr. Dweck delineates mindset into “fixed” or “growth-based.” In a mixed mindset, challenges are avoided, useful negative feedback is avoided and success of others is interpreted as a threat. In a growth-based mindset, challenges are embraced, criticism is constructive and success of others is a source of inspiration.

Losing or the threat of losing in a fixed mindset may result in giving up or quitting. Losing in a growth-based mindset is an opportunity to learn.

5. “Mother Nature and Father Time are undefeated.” This familiar saying in the sports community is another way of saying that, whether it’s due to age, injury or other factors, every athlete eventually faces a final defeat when he or she can no longer play their sport the way they would like. Sometimes, due to issues beyond their control, they must give up their sport.

When athletes are confronted with these types of dilemmas, assessing personal values can be helpful.  Ask yourself, “Why am I playing this sport or doing this activity?” Or, “Who am I outside of being an athlete that is important or valuable to me or others I care about most?”

Answers to these questions can provide athletes with a foundation for managing adversity, a guideline for navigating complex problems and finding inner strength. You don’t have to be an athlete, either, to find inspiration in long-distance sled dog musher Aliy Zirkle, who, without divulging any “Losers” spoilers, tries to find balance in honoring her values and her relentless pursuit to win the Iditarod.

Dr. Peter Lucchio is a clinical psychologist who works with athletes at the Bone &  Joint Institute’s Center for Musculoskeletal Health at Hartford Hospital. If you or a loved one are struggling with any these problems discussed above, or with issues related to mindset for sport performance, click here.