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Sportsmanship 101: Dealing with triumph & disaster

Hockey has one of the strongest sportsmanship tradition in sports, with teams always lining up to shake hands at the end of a series

By Dr. Angus Mugford, Head of Mental Conditioning, Athletic & Personal Development program

How important is a handshake? Why do most sports have a tradition of shaking hands once the battle is over?

Defining Sportsmanship

This past week in the NFL, the main storyline focused around a brisk interaction between Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz, head coaches of the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions, respectively. As tradition states, both coaches shake hands at the middle of the field after the final whistle as a mark of respect and congratulation. In this case, while there was a handshake, there was also a sense of disrespect and lack of sportsmanship.

Many analysts offered their opinion. "It's an easy thing to walk up to your opponent as a winner, but it's a whole other thing to lose and then face your opponent eye to eye and congratulate them." What does it say when the winner gloats and rubs it in the face of their competition? Some even suggested stopping the tradition and letting teams respectfully leave the field.

I couldn't disagree more.

The real question is about value. What's the value in shaking hands and looking your opponent in the face after competing?

Sportsmanship has a major place in the history and tradition of sports like tennis and golf, in particular, and none more so than at Wimbledon. A great example of this is the plaque hanging above the players' entrance to Wimbledon Centre Court, which includes a quote from Rudyard Kiplings poem "If…"

‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same'

This poem is more than 100 years old, but the message still applies to sport and life. There is the inherent value in sport that we have an opportunity to learn to deal with both victory and defeat, and move on. A modern translation may read, "Success builds character, failure reveals it."

How to have a ‘Winning Mentality'

When we talk about mental toughness in sport, there's perhaps nothing as tough as giving everything you have and still losing, only to have to greet your opponent on the field and offer your hand to congratulate them. In mental conditioning, one of the most important questions we ask is, "How do you define success?" Perhaps more important is to ask, "How do you define failure?"

When answering the question, did you think to yourself "winning" or "losing?" Most athletes that we work with do. Big deal, right?

You might think not, but one of our goals at the Academy, echoed by Nick Bollettieri himself, is that we help build a "winning mentality." This is one where a competitor gives everything they have and compete every point, with fierce commitment. It is NOT the act of winning, but striving with every moment in life to be committed to excellence and give yourself the opportunity to win.

Kipling may well have made a good mental conditioning coach in 19th Century England. A bigger excerpt from Kipling's poem goes on,

‘If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,

Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,

And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;'

‘If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!'

One guarantee in life is that we will "fail." What better opportunity is there than in sport to learn how we deal with failure and bounce back stronger! It's hard to simply tell someone how to deal with it, instead you have to live and breathe it, and learn from the experience. This is the mark of a champion and when you dig into the career and story behind many great champions, you will discover a person who has overcome many setbacks and failures, only to bounce back and learn, growing into the champion they became.

Take some time and think about the value of sportsmanship. Shaking hands, being fair and sincere is not a sign of weakness in our super competitive world - even the NFL. We're not talking about being a "good loser", instead, having a "winning mentality" is respecting the sport, your opponent and giving everything you have any given day.

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