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4 Lessons On Defeat From Pro Athletes, Presidential Candidates, And The Worst Football Team In History

You can’t always shoot under par in golf, much less life. Sam Weinman knows this as well as anyone. But the Golf Digest editor and self-confessed “mediocre golfer” wasn’t entirely sure how to guide his 2 sons through their losses in sports … and everything else. So he decided to mine advice from a cast of athletes, politicians, executives, and others who’ve lost spectacularly. Prodigiously. Really, these are people who suffered defeats so embarrassing they qualify as history-making.


In Win At Losing, everyone from Greg Norman to Michael Dukakis talk about their stunning defeats, how they handled them, and yes, their surprising upsides. Because if anyone can help you talk to — and motivate — your children about how to get through crushing tryouts, auditions, and other punishing moments of childhood — it’s the guy who missed a 4-foot putt with millions of dollars on the line.

Being Terrible Is Its Own Valuable Lesson

It takes a special group of players to be recognized as among the worst college football teams in history. And the Columbia University football squad from the late 80s, which lost 44 consecutive games in this period, will always be in the running. But despite stinking up the gridiron, a lot of those players went on to be hugely successful in life — just not in football. “Many of them say the experience of losing taught them resiliency and grit and delayed gratification,” says Weinman. “Losing prepares you for disappointment in life.”

When it comes to kids, you don’t want to scare them, but explaining that “life gets harder,” as he says, can help lay out realistic expectations. Also, they should know now they’ll never be able to beat you in leg-wrestling.

If Losing A Game Is Your Biggest Problem, You Have a Good Life

When Greg Norman failed to clinch the 1996 Masters, he set a new precedent in choking. The Aussie golfer had won pretty much everything else in the sport, and after a solid lead for most of the tournament, he experienced a spectacular meltdown that cleared the way for Nick Faldo’s 5-stroke win. “He was known as a stoic, proud, bullheaded guy,” says Weinman. But in the wake of his loss, “he was extremely gracious and humble, all things he hadn’t been before.”

man playing golf

Instead of moping, Norman pointed to mistakes he made and took the long view. “He was like, Hey, it’s fine, don’t feel bad for me. I get to hit a little white ball for a living and millions of people have to work in factories.” If a hard loss can humble the shark, it might do the same for even the most hotheaded 5-year-old.

Give Them A Moment To Be Bummed, Then Move The Hell On

At the moment, it may seem impossible to think about any other presidential election than 2016. But rewind to 1988, when former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis ran against George H. W. Bush. Dukakis, a widely revered politician, got his keister whupped. “His dream of being president was pulled out from right under him,” says Weinman. Yet, the next morning, Dukakis got up early and rode Boston’s T to the Governor’s mansion like any other day. “His point was, you’ve got to move on.”

Your kid probably hasn’t lost a presidential election (though that would be an interesting parenting scenario). But there may be a lesson there anyhow. “You want to validate kids’ feelings, not minimize them, because in their little world it’s a big deal,” says Weinman. “But ultimately you have to put your energy into something where you have control.”

Getting Cut From The Team Really Sucks Until It Doesn’t

The U.S. Olympic hockey team’s 1980 defeat of the Soviets, aka the “Miracle on Ice,” is one of the greatest underdog stories ever. That is, for everyone except Ralph Cox, the last dude cut from the team before the Games. You’d think Cox would be and angry that he missed out on such a defining moment. But in fact, it was the opposite.

According to Weinman, Cox is grateful he was a part of the team at all. “It was an important moment in his life because he had to navigate this devastating thing and it forced him to move on, start a career, and a family,” he says. “It proved to himself that he could get through it.” If Cox could deal with that without falling into a deep depression, then there’s hope your family can have its own Miracle After Not Making Little League Tryouts. Or Miracle After Not Getting Ice Cream For Dinner.