Coaching Philosophy: The Necessity of Teaching Athletes How to Lose

About the Author: Adam Reed is the associate editor of AFCA Magazine. The American Football Coaches Association is the only national organization dedicated to improving football coaches through ongoing education, interaction, and networking. The AFCA and Hammer Strength have teamed up to provide insights into the coaching profession, elite athletic programs, and more.

Michael Duffy from Adrian CollegeCompetitive athletics today can get blown out of proportion.

Calling an obsession with winning unhealthy seems reasonable enough, but when was the last time coaches really considered why being obsessed with winning is so damning for today’s athletes?

“We've built a society where if you're not winning, you're not doing any good,” said Michael Duffy, athletic director at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. “Not everybody's going to win the last game of the season. So some people call that a failure, and I disagree.”

In 35 years at Adrian College, an NCAA Division III school, Duffy has come to respect and appreciate something that affects the majority of teams at every level of every sport in competitive athletics – losing. While the rest of the country sees only winning as an acceptable outcome, Duffy sees the pitfalls that line of thinking brings.

Duffy doesn’t worry about the disappointment of losing, nor does he spend every waking hour scheming how to turn every program at Adrian into a perennial champion. As great as it would be for every athlete in the school to be constantly winning, the staff at Adrian is more interested in preparing them for a life in which losing is an unavoidable reality.

Toby Ernst of Adrian College“Somebody's going to lose. Somebody's not going to get that job,” explained Toby Ernst, the director of strength and conditioning at Adrian. “Somebody has to lose the game, somebody has to win the game. There are no ties in life, and when there are ties in sports, they should play for a winner and a loser.”

Luckily for Ernst, the weight room is the perfect place to teach athletes these valuable lessons. In the weight room, nothing comes easy. No matter what a player’s max is, no matter how strong they are, they are pushed to a new limit. That’s how the weight room works.

That’s also how life works.

“You have to earn everything,” said Ernst. “That's the mentality that we have in our weight room. If you want to see the build and you're not seeing it, ask yourself what you have to do to change it.”

Ernst says part of the struggle is working with young athletes who have a sense of entitlement. Maybe they grew up as the best athlete in their school, or their home town, but when they come to college, coaches have to convince them to work harder. 

In college, as in their future careers, athletes soon realize that even if they are really talented or gifted, that alone won’t be enough to make them stand out. Those who think it’s enough are in for a rude awakening in the real world.

As Ernst explains, losing shows athletes their flaws and shortcomings. Why would they work harder if they are winning with ease? Why sacrifice and put in extra time if the results will be the same?

Coaches at Adrian lead by example when it comes to losing, not that they haven’t done their fair share of winning. Most recently, they won the 2018 National Club Baseball Association World Series.

But for programs that aren’t having the desired results, the message to the coaching staff is simple. Recruit harder. Work harder. Be humble enough to ask other coaches why they are having success.

“You've got to work together, whether you're a winner or you're struggling a little bit,” added Duffy. “We should all learn from each other, and I think a lot of our coaches have.”

Once the coaches are able to look in the mirror and say they are doing all they can to set their team up for success, the real work of convincing athletes to take the lead begins. A real turnaround in an athletic program comes not only when the coaches are sick of losing, but also when the players are. 

“We all learn from it and try to nurture everybody,” Duffy says. “We don't want to give them everything. So, there's a fine line there. When do I stop giving and start saying, ‘Look, you have to earn it? I've given you enough. It's time to put on your big-boy pants and make a decision. You're either going to go in the weight room and get better, or you're not going to play."

In addition to finding a way to get athletes to commit to the sacrifices necessary to be successful, coaches also have to combat parents who would choose the easy path for their child. In 2018, parents often go out of their way to make their kids feel special, and even go so far as to create scenarios for their child to be guaranteed success.

Parents have players switch teams, transfer schools or even move to another state – all in lieu of facing the reality that their child isn’t good enough, or needs to work harder to achieve their dreams. Both are lessons today’s athletes need to learn before they venture out on their own.

When Duffy started his career in athletics in the ‘80s, his parents tried to get involved, but he told them to back off – threatening to stop playing if they didn’t. He wanted to learn how to deal with tough situations without their help, and says today’s athletes need to learn to do the same.

“Learn how to speak without your phone. Learn how to present yourself well, and own up to your mistakes,” he says.

Duffy admits it can be difficult for some athletes to understand the need to handle their own problems, especially when they have two over-involved parents who have always shielded them from the unpleasant realities awaiting them. But, Duffy says it’s important to have an athletics program that gives them a dose of reality whether they understand it at the time or not.

Four, five or even 10 years down the road, when they have an unexpected hardship or children of their own, they’ll be better served. In some cases – many cases – they may even realize it before it’s too late.

“The biggest gratification I get is when that student comes back,” explained Duffy. “To have them come up to you and they say, ‘I really didn't like you when I had to run those extra sprints,’ or ‘You made me accountable for something that I did wrong,’ or ‘You showed me something, a better way to do it, and I use that every day in my life with my children and my job."

Adrian College Weight Room