One of the cruelest moments in sports happens when the loser is interviewed, on camera, directly after letting the opportunity slip away. I’ve seen many athletes fall victim to pride and humiliation in that moment. It happened most recently to Serena Williams after her shocking defeat to unseeded Roberta Vinci. While it shouldn’t be lost in the conversation that Vinci played incredibly well, how Serena handled herself in the post-match interview warrants a conversation about sportsmanship in relation to youth sports.
Sportsmanship is the one skill Serena hasn’t mastered as part of her game. Sure she congratulated her opponent sufficiently. Sure she lost her historic bid to accomplish a calendar-year Grand Slam. She’s an incredible athlete and will likely retire as the best American tennis player in history. However, she also lost an opportunity to rise above defeat and march on to the next win with dignity. We saw it coming after the previous match with her sister Venus. After a reporter asked her why she wasn’t smiling, she was anything but complicit in answering the question. Her terse, “I don’t want to be here” statement was joked about until she lost in the semis to Vinci. She spoke for barely over two minutes before abruptly cutting off questions, ending the interview, and leaving the National Tennis Center.
Though not always easy, congratulating the opposing team after losing a close or important game is a critical aspect of youth sports. So is owning up to the fact that you’ll have to answer questions about how, and why, you lost. It’s so easy to stand in the middle of a circle of praise, but most of life is about overcoming challenges. Handling pressure is as much a part of the game as is the score. The kids who learn how to do it will benefit in many ways. A child who practices good sportsmanship is likely to be more empathetic and respectful in real life. They will also have the courage of conviction when others don’t share their same opinion. This skill is especially valuable in the dreaded teen years when peer pressure is at its highest. This is how we source our lives from sports. Learning from what happens on the field of play and applying the lessons to our lives.
Those very questions Serena didn’t want to answer after the Vinci loss will still be on the table. She’ll just carry over the baggage and speculation to the next match. How you lose is directly tied to how you win. I hope my kids get that when they’re walking off the field and the loss still stings.