Lesson #7: Learning to Graciously Handle Failure, Disappointment, and Defeat

by J. R. Cuevas

Sometimes, it’s because your opponent was simply too good. Other times, you had it and choked. There are times when it simply slipped away, and others when you deserved to win as much as your opponent, but there could only be one winner.

Whatever the case, every competitive athlete will have to endure the experience of losing. And while losing hurts for any athlete who cares, there are few sights more distressing than a sore loser. 

Skills can be learned during practice, but sportsmanship is an issue of character that can only be truly learned and tested through the heat of competition. And while it takes training to be a modest winner, it takes an abundance of character to be a gracious loser.

The potential of an athlete is realized when he wins; the character of an athlete is proven when he loses. It’s part of the reason why the introduction of “participation awards” in sports has only hindered the character building in our youth. Unlike good students who can avoid failing tests for the entirety of their academic career, losses are inevitable experiences in sports—even the best athletes know that there are times when “the race is not to the swift” (Eccl 9:11).

I mentioned earlier that every competitive athlete must not only play his best, but also play to win. And when you play to win, losses sting. I honestly thought that being a family man and a pastor would take away the sting of defeat after all the suffering I’ve had to endure in life. But as I’m now back into competitive sports, I realize that losing still stings; it hurts just as much as it did back in my high school days. And, as one great track-and-field athlete said, it shouldn’t feel any other way.

As a coach, I’d rather see one of my athletes cry from bitter disappointment after a loss than to be giddy or apathetic. But one of the greatest lessons that can be gleaned from sports is learning how to handle losses—even the most painful ones—with class and grace. This is what sportsmanship is all about. In true competitive sports, winners and losers do exist! And good sportsmanship involves not only being a humble winner but an equally gracious loser.

Job, in his response to his wife’s calls to curse God due to their calamity, admonished, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). How many times have we seen people sing praises to God during life’s wins and then fail to show that same kind of dignified worship during life’s losses?

Just as a good sportsman is a class act in both victory and defeat, a mature believer exhibits sincere worship and trust in God in both prosperity and adversity. He understands that both are a part of life—in the same way an athlete understands that both winning and losing are a part of sports—and learns to genuinely accept both.

Part of trusting God is learning to accept that both fortune and misfortune are from Him, and decreed by Him for the greater good. And along with this, trusting Him in all things involves persevering in faith even after personally stumbling. Did not Jesus know that Peter would stumble greatly, and yet prayed that his faith would not fail and instructed him to strengthen his brothers once restored? Without a doubt, the character of a man is built through both trials (James 1:2-4) and failures (Luke 22:31-32).

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