Losing with Class

Is there anything worse than winning a match and listening to your opponent make excuses? At this point I think I’ve heard them all.

I only got two hours of sleep last night.

I haven’t played in three weeks.

I’m just getting over the stomach flu.

It’s been such a crazy week. I just couldn’t get my head in the game.

I’m still breaking in these sneakers. 

I always have a hard time with soft hitters like you.

This is the first time my partner and I have played together.

This isn’t my usual racquet.

I’m still jet-lagged from my trip to Bali. (This one manages to offend on multiple levels.)

Excuses all come from the same place, the desire to protect one’s ego. And truth be told, I’ve been guilty of it at times myself. It can be hard to allow our victorious opponents to enjoy their win. We want to appear gracious by saying “good match,” and then subtly undermine the legitimacy of the win. We want them to know that if they had to face our “real game,” the outcome would have been very different.

The excuses we offer may very well be true. There can be crazy weeks. New sneakers can be distracting. But there isn’t a player around who isn’t dealing with something–a family crisis, nagging injuries, an unfamiliar racquet, or just an “off” day.

This is why I love John Isner’s words after losing to Kevin Anderson in their marathon semi-final match:

I competed hard and that’s what it comes down to. That’s what I have to be proud of. It stinks to lose but I gave it everything I had out there and I just lost…to someone who was just a little bit better in the end.

That’s how you do it. Simple, honest, and respectful. I don’t enjoy watching Isner play, but what a fundamentally decent person he seems to be. He sets a fine example of how to lose with class. I’m going to try to be a more consistently gracious loser going forward–although honestly, I’d prefer to get more practice with gracious winning!

Do post-match excuses irk you? Do any particularly creative ones stand out in your mind?

My serving total: 1,438

8 thoughts on “Losing with Class

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  1. The worst is the player who feels the need to make excuses after every bad shot or miss. The sun got in my eye. My sunscreen made my hand slip. A noise distracted me. Did you see that bug?

    As you said, we all have our moments, our bad days, our distractions and challenges. I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan of owning one’s outcomes. It’s helpful to ask for feedback, to think about what got in the way of success, and to learn. But otherwise, how about just taking responsibility and moving on? Yeah, I’m talking about more than tennis again. 🙂

    1. I don’t make excuses for my bad shots, but I am guilty of explaining them. Usually I’m doing it for my own benefit–telling myself why I screwed it up so hopefully I don’t do it again. “Bend your knees!” “Look at the ball, not the target!” But it’s rarely helpful. I don’t often make the changes that I’m telling myself to make. I also don’t like when those self-corrections come at the expense of acknowledging that the opponent made a good shot.

      I should probably cultivate a more zen attitude, inwardly observing what I’m doing–“Hmm. I was watching my target that time.” –and trust in myself that I’ll correct. A quiet mind is definitely my friend on the court.

  2. agree with everything you said, but why don’t you enjoy watching Isner play? He is 6’8″, moves very well, comes to net some, has great attitude (now though he didn’t in the past). To me, he is a winner through and through

    1. He has been working on his movement, but these very tall men often have a lumbering quality that I dislike. I also dislike watching serving machines. Too many points end without any rally. That’s not Isner’s fault–I’d love to have that serve myself–but it doesn’t make me want to watch him. That said, he’s a class act and I admire his dedication to the sport.

  3. In response to Elena’s comment, above, I am uncomfortable playing with a PARTNER who apologizes to me every time we lose a point that she was involved in. Any perspectives, advice on this?

    1. This is such a tough one. I’ve played with people like this–so self-abasing and apologetic–and it DOES get uncomfortable.

      One thing that has NOT helped for me is saying, “Gosh, don’t apologize. We all make mistakes. I just screwed up my return on the last point.” The person who’s apologizing usually feels like the weak link in the group. Rightly or wrongly, she considers the other players above her level and feels very self-conscious. Through this lens, she sees her own errors as glaring evidence of why she doesn’t belong on the court with the other three, whereas her partner’s flubbed return is simply an unforced error. Trying to make the apologizer see that we’re all in the same boat doesn’t work because in her mind she’s all alone in her leaky dingy while the rest of us are sipping champagne on our yacht.

      A long time ago, I played with a woman who would say something like “No sorries unless we see blood.” She’d repeat it, with the same equanimity and intonation, every time her partner apologized. After a few times of hearing that phrase, you’d stop apologizing because you felt stupid making her say the same phrase at you over and over!

      Funny enough, when you stopped apologizing, you started to play better! I guess it’s not surprising, since you could focus all of your attention on the ball and not on worrying about your partner being mad at you.

      So I guess that’s two possible ideas. One, to repeat that phrase, or something similar, every time and hope your partner gets as tired of hearing you say it as you are of hearing the apologies. Or two, start a conversation with something like, “You know what I discovered a couple of years ago? It’s so funny, but I used to apologize to my partner, and it actually made me play worse! I was so preoccupied with what my partner must be thinking about me that I wasn’t totally focused on the ball! So when I stopped apologizing, I played better and had fewer things to apologize for! Isn’t that funny? hahaha” (A little humor always helps, too.)

      Let us know how you end up handling this. I’d be curious to hear if you found an approach that works for you.

      And actually, this is such an interesting topic that I’m going to make a blog post out of it! Maybe we’ll get some other people chiming in with their ideas. Thanks for a great question!!

  4. Thanks for the article. I sometimes apologize for a bad shot in doubles tennis or squash. But after reading this I feel like I shouldn’t and there is no point to it.

    Regarding losses, I just say “good match” and “you played well”.

    But there are some players I know that make excuses during and after the game. Instead allowing those comments to annoy me and instead interpret them as a weakness in the player.

Let me know what you think!

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