Don't be a sore loser. Here's how to win, even when you lose : Life Kit Losing is inevitable, but failure doesn't have to be. Learn how to reframe the way you look at loss, with the help of a former NBA player, a therapist who helps clients build unconditional self-worth and an entrepreneur who challenged himself to experience 100 days of rejection.

Losing can be transformative — if you do it right

Losing can be transformative — if you do it right

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
A trophy sitting on front of a green backdrop is inscribed with the words &quot;good loser&quot; as colorful confetti falls down around it. The image accompanies a story on how to loser well.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

With the 2022 Winter Olympics in full swing, and the Bengals and the Rams facing off in Super Bowl LVI this Sunday, we're going to see a lot of winning —and a lot of losing — on a very public scale.

No one likes to be dubbed a loser. Failure hurts, and "loser" is a loaded term – especially these days.

So while you might be inclined to try and avoid an "L" on your forehead at any cost, a better perspective, says author and sports journalist Sam Weinman, is to learn to lose well.

Because "it's unavoidable, right?" he says. Losing is "an experience that is as universal as it gets."

While being a sore loser on the tee-ball court as a kid (or, let's be honest, the pickleball court last weekend) might not seem like a big deal, as Weinman details in his book, Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains:

"How we deal with success and failure in sports or other childhood activities early on can be a precursor to how we might navigate other obstacles later in life."

"Think of it this way," writes Weinman, "If you can't handle things going awry when the stakes are small, you're in for that much rougher ride when the real challenges start to mount."

Read on for tips on how to be a good loser, or listen to the episode at the top of the page.

Allow yourself to be disappointed

When you're a kid, that reaction to losing is easy and instantaneous. Maybe it's bursting into tears or running to mom, knocking over the board game, or all three at once.

As adults, we've learned these options are no longer socially acceptable. But that doesn't mean we don't still feel sad or angry, or don't have the need to release those strong feelings.

Weinman says one of the telltale signs of a sore loser is someone who "isn't willing to take ownership of their own fallibility."

"You see it in all walks of life, he says, "When things go poorly, their first instinct is to look outward and not at themselves."

Do your hurt feelings ever keep you from extending the proverbial handshake? Ever given a misplaced cold shoulder to a partner, harsh words to a ref or slammed some doors unnecessarily?

Or perhaps your approach to losing is to take that scorn inward.

"We start to judge ourselves and we say, 'Why did you do that? Why did you think you were going to do well?'" says Dr. Adia Gooden, licensed clinical psychologist, "We start beating ourselves up, and that just makes it worse."

Whether you get all blame-y toward yourself or others, Gooden says it's normal to be disappointed and important to process those feelings – you just have to do so in a healthy way.

Gooden suggests practicing the three core components of self-compassion:

  • Mindfulness: Acknowledge your feelings without judgment. What are you feeling and where is it in your body? Is it in your chest or your head, the back of your throat? 
  • Human commonality: Remind yourself, losing is normal! "Humans experience failure, it doesn't mean there's something wrong with us," says Gooden. 
  • Self-kindness: Put a hand on your chest, give yourself a hug, tell yourself that this is hard, but it's going to be OK. 

"All of those things can help to soothe you in the moment, which allows you to manage the emotion in a healthy way," says Gooden.

A loss doesn't have to be the end of the story. Stay growth-minded

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
A bronze medal inscribed with the words &quot;Last Place&quot; is on a red, white and blue ribbon. The medal hangs around the neck of someone wearing a blue shirt, but the image is close up so we can only see the ribbon, the medal and the shirt.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

When you suffer a high-stakes loss, it can be hard to look past it or know what to do next.

Jay Williams understands this truth deeply. Before becoming an NBA analyst and podcast host of NPR's The Limits, he was living his dream: after an all-star college basketball career at Duke, he was the second pick in the NBA draft for the Chicago Bulls. He had Michael Jordan's old locker and was living in the same apartment building as Oprah Winfrey.

Then, one day in 2003 his career, his health and his paycheck were all lost in an instant after a motorcycle accident.

And what Williams discovered even after he had healed, was that others – his fellow athletes, the media – only wanted to define him by everything he'd lost.

"It's easy to stay in that type of mindset where you're angered by what you've lost, and when you do that, you don't focus on what the hell you found," says Williams. "So it takes away my appreciation from the fact that I can walk. I can run. It may be painful, but I can run with my daughter."

Williams decided to shift his perspective. Instead of sitting with the disappointment of the past, he's set on building for the future.

NPR Life Kit quote card that reads: "It's easy to stay in that type of mindset where you're angered by what you've lost, and when you do that, you don't focus on what the hell you found." — Jay Williams, Host of NPR's The Limits and former NBA basketball player
NPR

This idea is what psychologist Carol Dweck popularized as a growth mindset, and it's a key factor to being a good loser. Where those with a fixed mindset will focus on a final score and think that talent and intelligence are static, growth-minded people believe that effort can lead to mastery.

"The great losers are the people who are able to recognize that a loss is just one step in a process. But it doesn't need to be the last step," says Weinman.

Get a grip on reality, then make a clear-eyed game plan

After a loss, it can be hard to separate the real from the imagined, to parse the stories our bruised egos are spinning from what actually happened. Everyone blames me! I've brought shame to my ancestors!

When you're tempted to be overly critical, Gooden says take a pause and remember the last time you noticed someone else's mistake. Did it actually affect you? Did you stay up all night thinking about their misstep?

"I like to remind my clients, and sometimes myself, that probably about 90 percent of everything everybody does is about them and not about us," she says, "People are not talking for days and being like, Oh my gosh, can you believe they had a typo on slide three?"

Instead of beating yourself up, focus on being as objective as possible. Set aside your ego to build an honest picture of the reasons for your loss to do better in the future.

The deeper you dig in and the more of your network you can include, the more you can expect to grow. Maybe it's extra time with game tape with your coach, sending an email with specific questions to your interviewer, or – if you're really brave – asking an ex what went wrong after a sudden breakup.

But this debriefing bit isn't and shouldn't just be about finding flaws, of course. You shouldn't have tunnel vision on your mistakes.

"And I think that's actually a really important ingredient to losing well at times," Weinman says," sometimes you just need to chalk it up to a bad day or elements outside of your control and accept that and move on."

Practice perseverance. Training your losing muscle can help a lot in the long run

Author and entrepreneur Jia Jiang found success through rejection.

It started with a rejection email. At the time, Jiang was the CEO of a software start-up and was in desperate need of capital. The email he received was from a potential investor saying they wouldn't be moving forward.

"The first thought to pop up in my mind was, 'I want to quit. I'm not made for this," said Jiang. But then it dawned on him. "Would anyone successful feel this way? Would they want to quit right after rejection?"

Jiang decided if he was going to be a successful leader, he needed to shed his fear of rejection once and for all, and thus his project, 100 Days of Rejection was born.

Jiang committed to getting rejected every day in a different way to see what he would glean from it: he asked strangers for money, asked Krispy Kreme workers for Olympic ring donuts, asked people if he could plant flowers in their yard, asked pet shops for hair cuts, and universities if he could teach classes.

The first day, in which he asked a stranger for $100, did not go well. "I started to sweat, my heart started to pound, the hair on the back of my neck stood up," Jiang said, "I was a total mess." He ran away as soon as he got a no.

"It was like a microcosm of my life," says Jiang, "the first thing I do is run away because I hate the fear."

So the next day, he resolved to plant his feet and see what happened. Amazingly, that day and every day thereafter got a little bit easier.

"It's the running that feels bad, not the rejection itself," says Jiang, "also knowing you're not going to die actually helps a lot."

Jiang learned a lot from his project, but the message he pushes most is the importance of exposing yourself to small losses.

NPR Life Kit quote card that reads: "People want to say yes to you and they want to have you succeed ... the world is a lot more accepting and kind than I thought." — Jia Jiang, Speaker, entrepreneur and author of Rejection Proof
NPR

"You actually get trained to handle rejection," he says, "You can turn a 'no' into a 'yes' without losing your mind, without getting so tight, without getting so hurt.

And what's more? Jiang says you'd be surprised how much the world roots for you when you put yourself out there – even if only as a loser.

"People want to say yes to you and they want to have you succeed," says Jiang, "the world is a lot more accepting and kind than I thought."


The podcast portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen.

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