Navigating defeat as an athlete: Finding perspective in losing


Illustration by Elie Flanagan

Lennae Starr, Staff Reporter

Athletes deal with defeat in different ways. While for some it is devastating, others just brush it off.

According to Patrick O’Rourke, who compiles statistics from various athletic sources, only around 7 percent of high school athletes are selected to continue playing for a postsecondary institution, making it clear that university and college athletics are selective and competitive. Getting to that point typically demonstrates years of dedication to a sport, with athletes often playing a sport from the time they could first walk. 

While this means that college athletes have a lot of experience winning, it also means that they have experience losing as well. As athletes grow, switching teams or sports, their attitudes towards the game and losing evolve, oftentimes reflecting the attitudes of their peers or coaches.

In her youth, Claire Pinger, a senior lacrosse player, had been subjected to coaching styles where winning was the main focus. However, within Whitman athletics, Pinger has found a healthier balance of competition and enjoyment in the sport.

I’ve been an athlete for about as long as I can remember. Throughout middle school and high school especially, I always had coaches who prioritized winning as the primary goal of competition,” Pinger said. “In college this has shifted somewhat: though arguably the stakes of representing the school are somewhat higher, the team culture on my team has focused more on balancing sports and academics and enjoying the game while still having a drive to win.”

Senior soccer player Jadon Bachtold has also played sports for most of his life. Since becoming a player for Whitman, Bachtold has changed the way he sees losing.

When I was younger I was completely focused on the result. Defeats were absolutely devastating,” Bachtold said. “In college you have a bit more perspective. Defeats become learning opportunities instead of moments to put one’s head down and be disappointed.”

Bachtold emphasized how individual disappointment can be abated by coming together as a team in order to work through a loss and adjust focus towards new strategies for achieving goals.

“On the soccer team, we try and move on from the emotional part of defeat as soon as possible. After the raw emotions come out we reflect as a team on our shortcomings, as well as our positives and then develop a plan to improve and not make the same mistakes again,” Bachtold said.

Bachtold’s head coach, Jose Cedeno, shared similar sentiments about learning on the field.

The first thing is that we don’t use the word “losing”; it’s either we win or we learn,” said Cedeno. “The message is always ‘we will continue to improve.’”

Even with support from coaches and teammates, it can still be hard to process defeat. Coach Cedeno recognized the importance of developing a positive mindset.

The main goal is always to look at how we can turn a negative thought into a positive one. We want to give hope that things will change because the coach has a plan. We have the quality, we have the talent in the team that we’re able to do that,” Cedeno said.

While for the most part athletes don’t enjoy defeat, they recognize the importance of learning from it and focusing on aspects of the sport apart from the score. Defeat can be a source of motivation as well as an opportunity to reflect and affirm one’s capabilities and effort.

I wish I’d had the mindset much earlier of ‘if you put in all the work and still lose, that’s okay.’ Every athlete is going to lose at some point, and rather than dwelling on it, I wish I’d learned earlier to both use that defeat as motivation and to not let it define my sense of my own abilities or worth,” Pinger said.