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Athlete Centered 3 Helping Athletes Value Adversity

“Adversity, to a fixed mindset athlete typically means something very different, than to a growth mindset athlete. The reality is that adversities push these growth mindset individuals through their imagined “walls” and upwards towards a higher level of competitive skills. This is emotional aptitude in sports.” Frank Giampaolo

How many times do players most often lose in sports? At least three times.

“Players lose on the court or field, they lose with their coach, and they lose with their parent on the way home, or at the dining room table.” ~ Vic Braden (paraphrase ours)

How do coaches help players to discover the value in adversity and turn that loss into a win?

Coaches help players through times adversity by first displaying empathy. Keeping a player’s or a team’s goals in mind and helping to teach them the lessons that come with adversity is a major strategy in helping develop a growth mindset. Players then have an opportunity to learn to exhibit great determination for the big moments, or learn from the big moments when they hold lessons for the player or team.

Styrling’s Player

The Situation

In our team’s state championship match, the overall score was locked at 4-4, with one match left to decide the championship. One of our freshmen, Camryn was down 6-1, 5-0 and she then rallied back in the second set to win 7-5. The third set was very close finishing in a tiebreaker. Camryn lost the match in the third set tiebreaker. It was heartbreaking, but I felt so much pride in my heart for the way she battled. She gave her full effort to win it, and yet she came up on the short side in the final score.

Engagement and Response

I walked out on the court and through the group of players and parents of the opposing team to reach her. As a put my arm around her shoulder I told Camryn that she had shown great strength in fighting back to the very end. I was proud of her! She smiled and said, “Thanks Coach.”

After a Time of Reflection

Following the trophy presentation, the rest of our team began to make their way off the court, Camryn came up to me and said, “Coach, I’ll never lose a match like that again – I know what I need to do and how I need to play from now on.” I asked her what did she mean? She said, “Coach, my personality is to go for it and I’m going to continue my training to do just that, go for it. I know that’s who I am!”

Concrete Example of a Shift

Camryn after that season moved to South Carolina, but over the last two years has come back to visit me about once a month to continue her training with me as her main coach. Largely due to that loss in the State Championship, Camryn and I were able to discover together what she really meant that day when she realized she wants to “go for it” and how that manifest on the court in her practice and match play.

Knowing Who She Wants to Be

She determined that she is an all-court player, looking for opportunities to attack and finish the point at the net. Powerful first serves followed by a ‘+1 Forehand’ to the opponent’s weaker side. She has made great strides, rising in the rankings now to making it into the top twenty in South Carolina. Top college programs from around the country are taking notice of her as a junior in high school. I’m so proud of her discovery and she has found how to win even when the scoreboard doesn’t say the same.

Bill’s Player and Team

The Set Up

In 1999, we were not partying like Prince has advised us to do. The team I was coaching had a legitimate shot at a league title, but we were slight underdogs to another team, as they had a bit more experience, and depth on their team, especially in doubles. Even so, we trained hard, but we had two players who held themselves separate from the rest of the team.

The Cancers

Our team chemistry was lacking. After losing the first match up with the first place team at home, suddenly our #2 player did not show up to practice the next day. He came to one more practice then quit the team. No real reason was given for his quitting, but he seemed to give up on the team’s chances of winning. After it was discovered that his cohort had plotted out what would happen if he left, assuming that the other player would take the #2 player’s place in the league tournament, that cohort would also later quit the team when I did not name him to that tournament team. There were other reasons behind not naming his as such. At that point we were 9-1, and before the two of them left, we still had a chance of tying for a league championship.

Cancer Surgery

After those two left the team, I had to scramble to make changes to the line up. We faced some teams directly below us in the standings, and three 4-3 losses later, we finished 12-4 and tied for third place. The most amazing thing about that, is that almost immediately after those two where gone, the whole team became happier. Practices were more fun, and I even had more fun, even though our results were very disappointing.

Bitter Disappointment

The peak of this angst came in one particular match. One of my young doubles teams that had often given away matches, where they held leads, lost again. This time it was to a team well behind us in the standings, and they really took it hard. I can remember Noli head down on the bleachers sobbing. I had never seen this level of caring about the outcome in him, he and his partner Manuel were too of the happiest players I have ever met, win or lose. They could lose a tough match and be seen laughing and smiling minutes later. Not on this occasion.


So I approached Noli, and said, “It looks like you are taking this pretty hard. Are you ok?” He shook his head ‘no’. So we talked for a bit I sat next to him and put my hand on his back for a brief moment to reassure him. I let him know that for the first time he seemed to really care about the outcome, and thats a good thing. Also, the other guys quitting was not really such a bad thing, because they were negative anyway. He agreed.

The Response

Flash forward to the next year, my new team captain showed incredible leadership to get the former #2 player to come back, with a very strong contract in place for his behavior. The young team came in battle tested with greater depth than the previous years team, even after we had graduated our #1 and some heavy hitters. Our team had one player with a 100mph serve, and only one player over 5’8″. I picked us to finish fourth. Our focus on the year was to be so quick around the court, that very few winners would ever be hit against us, and it worked. And then a strange thing happened, in all the close matches our players showed a strength and determination that was born from the disappointment of close losses the previous year. We played in six matches that were decided 4-3, and we won four of them. The first place team from the year before found a way to lose to the third place team, and the fifth place team. I believe they may have been overconfident. But this whole story revolves around one banner match.

The Magical Outcome

In one of the matches that would finish 4-3, Noli and Manuel were up to their normal trick of winning the first set, losing a tight second set, and getting their doors blown off in the third set. They were down 5-0 in the third. This would now be the pivotal match. With a note of resignation, I turned to my assistant and said, “This will be over soon.” A couple minutes later there was a changeover and it was 5-2. “This will be over soon.” Then there was another changeover and now it was 5-4. I called the players over for a casual chat. “Hey guys, whats going on here?” “Oh, coach, we are winning!” “OK, what are you doing?” “We are lobbing them a lot.” “OK, carry on!”. In a true miracle match, they came all the way back to win 7-5 with the other team looking almost completely hopeless in the final three games. I knew I better not get too involved, because Noli and Manuel had found a way to win. In what to me is also a bigger miracle, that one win protected a tie for a league championship. One of two in a 44 year span at that school. You could say that part of the championship was won on the bleachers the year prior.

So coaches, let's look for opportunities to help our players learn the value of adversity, and how that can be the prime training ground for greatness in the future.


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