How to Survive a Losing Team (Transcript)

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Good Sport
How to Survive a Losing Team
March 15, 2023

[00:00:00] Jody Avirgan:
Some of the deepest thoughts I've ever had, biggest emotions, have been in a post-game team circle, especially after a loss. Sitting on the grass exhausted, slowly taking off the cleats, trying not to look your teammates in the eye, or you might just start crying. Someone has to say something in these moments.

I once had a coach tell me after a brutal season-ending loss: “Don't replay this game over and over in your head. You can't fix the past. You can try and learn from it, but you can't fix the past.” Yeah. I know. Wise words, great coach, and really hard to do.

I've always been one of those people who hates to lose more than I love to win. I think a lot of top athletes are that way. That might be why I'm so fascinated by losing. Because it's an inevitable part of loving sports, but it never gets easier, at least not for me, and I'm particularly fascinated by losing streaks. I've been lucky enough to never have been on a truly hard-luck team, but sometimes I look at a college or pro team with an awful record, and I wonder: how do they deal with it? Loss after loss, how do they keep going?

That's how I ended up talking to Nikki McCray, Women's Basketball Hall of Famer.

[00:01:23] Nikki McCray:
When you're a pro, your job is to perform, you know, and it's a short season, so there's a, a lot of expectation.

[00:01:31] Jody Avirgan:
She knows what it's like to be on a losing team. For most of her career in the WNBA, she played on teams with losing records. It started with her season on the Washington Mystics, which was then a new WNBA expansion team. Their record in 1998 was 3 and 27. 3 wins, 27 losses.

[00:01:54] Nikki McCray:
Winning had followed me up until that point. That year, we only won three games. That was very hard for someone like me who everywhere I've gone, I've won.

[00:02:08] Jody Avirgan:
Up to that point, winning really did follow Nikki. She grew up in a small town just outside of Memphis where she'd play basketball outside until the streetlights came on around 9 or 10:00 PM. She played for Collierville High School where she set four state records.

[00:02:22] Nikki McCray:
I started all four years on the varsity team. By the time I was a junior and senior, our team was making it to state.

[00:02:32] Jody Avirgan:
Then Nikki spent four years at the University of Tennessee, one of the greatest college programs ever. She was SEC Player of the Year in ’94 and ’95. Olympic Gold followed in 1996. Years and years of winning.

[00:02:46] Nikki McCray:
I think where I hit a little bump on the road was with the Washington Mystics.

[00:02:52] Jody Avirgan:
Nikki spent four seasons with the Mystics, and every season, they lost more games than they won, and then she went on to play for the Indiana Fever, another losing season.

[00:03:02] Nikki McCray:
You know, we just, we didn't win.

[00:03:04] Jody Avirgan:
Nearly every WNBA team Nikki played on struggled, even if she personally was making All-Star teams. I had to ask her: how did it not get to her? How did it not get to the team? And that's when Nikki said something that really surprised me.

[00:03:20] Nikki McCray:
Even though we were three and whatever in DC, every night, the expectation was to win.

[00:03:26] Jody Avirgan:
Really? Really, really?

[00:03:28] Nikki McCray:
Yes. Every night, the expectation was to win.

[00:03:31] Jody Avirgan:
I think that would surprise people. Right? I think people, you know, three-quarters of the way through the season, like you know what kind of team you are, but really, people expect to win?

[00:03:41] Nikki McCray:
Mm-hm. Yeah. You know what team you are, but you have to be realistic and understand where you are. But the expectation is to win. You know, you don't ever wanna go into a situation thinking “We're not gonna win.”


[00:04:07] Jody Avirgan:
My name is Jody Avirgan, and this is Good Sport from the TED Audio Collective. Today, we're talking about winning and losing. Look, yes. In sports, you play to win the game, as Coach Herm Edwards famously yelled during a press conference. But if he's right, then what do you do when the wins just aren't happening? What do you do with the pain of losing? And how do you truly keep expecting to win, as Nikki McCray put it?

On this episode, how a losing team keeps going.


[00:05:00] Jody Avirgan:
I am so blown away by Nikki McCray's insistence that the expectation to win is still there on a losing team, even when all the signs point to the fact that, you know, that team's probably gonna lose the next game, just like they lost the last one.

[00:05:13] Nikki McCray:
I think when you are a competitor, you have expectations to win, you know, and every day you go out and compete, that's what you're doing. Nobody works 20 hours in a gym to lose. Nobody does that.

[00:05:29] Jody Avirgan:
Expecting to win is a little different, a little deeper than just wanting to win or deluding yourself that you have a chance. In a way, when I hear Nikki say that even a losing team expects to win, she's kind of saying even a losing team should keep their expectations really high. And when I asked Nikki about where that expectation came from, she told me about playing for Tennessee under legendary Coach Pat Summit.

At Tennessee, you recognize the culture immediately as you walk through the door. Decades of excellence. You just knew that “Yeah, we're probably gonna be one of the best teams in the country and that practices are going to be just as hard as the games.”

[00:06:13] Nikki McCray:
You know, the expectations, that’s one of the reasons why I went to Tennessee, because I didn't wanna go somewhere where it was gonna be easy. You knew that you were gonna have to come in and, and battle every day that you stepped out on the floor. You were gonna have to compete against another All-American. You just have all these great players that you're surrounded by, and no one is trying to undercut each other. We're just trying to, you know, keep the tradition going and do our jobs.

[00:06:46] Jody Avirgan:
“Do your job.” A classic sports cliche. For Nikki, that meant bringing it on the court—scoring, passing, facilitating—but also the dozen little things she did off the court, her routine, and she carried that into her pro career even as the wins stopped following her.

[00:07:03] Nikki McCray:
I think part of it is no matter what, you just have to be consistent in your routine.

[00:07:07] Jody Avirgan:

[00:07:08] Nikkie McCray:
For me, if we had a back-to-back game, if we were playing LA, then we had to get on a red eye and fly to Connecticut and play them the next day, you better believe I'm gonna have a masseuse ready, like I'm gonna do stuff to get my body ready for the game.

[00:07:28] Jody Avirgan:
Routine can be one of the most annoying parts of being an athlete. Like, it’s tedious. On the bus, off the bus, packing, unpacking, tape your ankles, do your warmup day in and day out. And especially if you're losing, I wonder if a routine can sometimes feel like some small, hopeless attempt to change your luck or hold on as things unravel. But actually, Nikki insists that routine is the key to this “Do your job” mindset.

[00:07:56] Nikki McCray:
But you gotta stay consistent with that, whether you're winning or losing, because it's all about performing, and you wanna be able to go out every day and give it your best.

[00:08:06] Jody Avirgan:
A consistent routine can also protect you, give you a foundation to go back to as you ride the emotional roller coaster of a season full of wins or losses. As Nikki's pro career went on, there were a lot of those ups and downs and mixed emotions, things that would put a strain on any team.

Have you ever—I don't think you've ever done this, I can tell—but have you, have you ever seen teammates who have like started to play the blame game or get grumpy or kind of hit a wall when things aren't going well?

[00:08:40] Nikki McCray:
Well, definitely. I mean, I think that's, that's on any team, but that’s where you educate. Somebody’s not playing? Fix it. I mean, fix it. Figure out a way to get on the floor, you know? So you try to educate players on being a professional.

[00:09:01] Jody Avirgan:
Professionalism. Another sports cliche, but I wanna linger on that word for a bit because if we think professional athlete, we may imagine someone who is fiercely competitive, driven to win, someone who might get eaten up by a big loss.

But Nikki's version of professionalism is not that. These days, Nikki is a college coach, and she talks about professionalism with her college players, actually. And her version of professionalism is that. It's “Do your job”. The small things matter as much as the big things. Be disciplined, train hard, respect your teammates.

And by that definition, everyone, not just athletes, could stand to be a little more professional. I am sure Nikki would've loved more wins in her pro career. She never made the playoffs, but she's learned some deep lessons about staying focused on what matters and well, for our podcast's sake at least, all these years later, I’m thankful that she learned those lessons because now we get to learn them from her.

Up next, the psychology of wins and losses and how winning actually changes you, body and mind.


[00:10:25] Nikki McCray:
You still have a job to do, you still have to stay ready.

[00:10:29] Jody Avirgan:
Nikki McCray: consummate professional, even on a losing team, always doing her job. Always ready, consistent.

[00:10:37] Nikki McCray:
It’s almost like if you're on the bench and you're not playing, you still gotta stay ready because your number's gonna be called.

[00:10:46] Ian Robertson:
You see, that's a, that's a very mature and healthy and, and I think a positive way to approach sporting performance.

[00:10:53] Jody Avirgan:
Ian Robertson is a psychologist and the author of How Confidence Works. I wanted to ask him about what losing does to us and why some people can handle it more than others. And he really liked Nikki's framing of professionalism, which sort of puts the outcome of a game off to the side. Because in Ian's research, he's seen how much of a problem it is that so many athletes judge themselves on whether they win or lose.

[00:11:20] Ian Robertson:
There's always gonna be someone better than you, which means you have to build a, a self, uh, esteem and, uh, the evaluation of yourself. You have to base that on many other things, and professionalism is a lovely way of capturing that, on getting the pride of doing thing well. The pride of working hard, the pride of persisting through failure. The pride of, of, you know, being a good sportsperson.

[00:11:45] Jody Avirgan:
Huh. Maybe we should have called this show “Good Sports Person”. Ian has noticed that the very best athletes focus on the small, day-to-day things, and he says that you can build that into your routine. Even for a team on a massive losing streak, there are lots of opportunities for other kinds of wins.

You can compete to win at practice. You can push yourself in training. You can win your matchup during a game, even if your team is probably gonna lose. A coach I've worked with talks about the reindeer games that happen on her favorite teams. Players are constantly competing, playing cards, playing video games.

Maybe you're a soccer team, but you play a little flag football during warmups. All of that creates a texture, a low-level hum of competition, a bunch of smaller challenges that help you keep your edge.

[00:12:34] Ian Robertson:
You need to have intermediate goals, and that's what, that's what professionalism gives you, which is why that Nikki McCray comment is so, so, so important.

[00:12:43] Jody Avirgan:
Ian told me a story about Sonia O'Sullivan, a middle-distance runner from Ireland. She was the favorite heading into the Atlanta Olympics in the 5,000-meter event.

[00:12:53] Ian Robertson:
And she famously bombed out of that terribly. It was a, it was a kind of, it felt like a mu—humiliation for her. It was a huge disappointment for the country, and, and the expectations just collapsed in the face of reality.

How, how did, how did she cope with that great kind of, not just personal sense of failure, but public kind of humiliation, and she said she just, her, her, her goals completely changed. She, she just forgot about Olympic medals and she built her way back until eventually she, she'd just missed a gold medal in the, in the Sydney Olympics and got a, got a silver medal.

[00:13:31] Jody Avirgan:
This makes sense to me. If you create smaller goals for yourself, then you avoid feeling inadequate or like a total failure just because you didn't hit that one big target. You get to celebrate more success along the way, and you get back in touch with that feeling of winning. Ian says this is because of something called the winner effect. He wrote a whole book about it.

[00:13:52] Ian Robertson:
The winner effect is, is, uh, we're all fighting for dominance hierarchies, and there's always contests. And just winning a tiny contest just boosts your chances to win the next one. And it's cumulative, and it's compound interest, and it changes your brain in ways to make you more likely to win in the future.

[00:14:11] Jody Avirgan:
The idea of the winner effect dates back to the 1950s, and it comes from outside the world of sports. Researchers were trying to figure out how different animals established dominance, which in nature comes down to how often they would win confrontations with other animals. One mathematician found an answer in chickens.

The chief chicken—I’m not sure if that's a scientific term, but I'm gonna go with it. The chief chicken would come to rule a flock by pecking other chickens into submission. That's where we get the term pecking order. This scientist wanted to figure out what traits landed some chickens higher on the pecking order.

[00:14:47] Ian Robertson:
He put in things like body weight, testosterone levels, group size, but he never managed to find stable hierarchies until he hit on one variable to put into the equation. And that was if you won a contest, a small contest, then your statistical chances of winning a subsequent contest were slightly increased. And that's the, that is the winner effect.

[00:15:14] Jody Avirgan:
You know how it is. You peck one chicken into submission, you start to think you can do it again. Then scientists saw the winner effect with green sunfish, a really aggressive fish species. They fight for territory by flaring their gills and biting each other until another fish backs down, as we all do. The researchers set up an experiment where they would put pairs of green sunfish into a tank and watch their behavior.

Even against a same-sized opponent, how a fish performed in one match had a lot to do with how their previous matchups had gone. And then finally, researchers looked for the winner effect in humans and spotted it in men's tennis. If a player won a tiebreaking set, they were more likely to win the next set.

[00:15:57] Ian Robertson:
Part of the mechanism that is, is confidence. The confidence that comes, but there are also biological effect on the brain of winning, increasing aggression and motivation.

[00:16:06] Jody Avirgan:
Winning begets winning. It's not perfect science. Sunfish aren't pro athletes. But you can see this phenomenon in sports.

[00:16:17] Ian Robertson:
You know, the, the boxing world has a word for that. It's called “tomato cans”.

[00:16:22] Jody Avirgan:

[00:16:23] Ian Robertson:
Mike Tyson, when he came outta prison, they, they, they gave him a couple of, uh, tomato can fights—that is fights that were against people who had no hope against him, simply to give him that experience of winning.

[00:16:38] Jody Avirgan:
And the experience of winning gives you confidence. That, Ian Robertson says, is at the heart of the winner effect. Confidence really is one of those magical things. Fake it ’til you make it. It really works!

[00:16:52] Ian Robertson:
To get the benefits of confidence, remember confidence treats, uh, the, the belief that you will achieve something as having achieved it. And so you get the performance-enhancing effects of that.

[00:17:05] Jody Avirgan:
You know, when I was chatting with Ian about the power of confidence, it helped me understand something that Nikki McCray told me: a story about that Washington Mystics team and where they found their confidence. You don't always have to find it on the court. That 3 and 27 season, it was the first in Mystics history, a new women's basketball franchise in a new city.

[00:17:27] Nikki McCray:
What I really enjoyed was the fans. They never wavered. We had so many wonderful people in the stands.

[00:17:36] Jody Avirgan:
That alone was an exciting reason to keep showing up. A little boost of confidence and motivation every time they walked into the arena.

[00:17:43] Nikki McCray:
I think fans will support you as long as you're giving maximum effort. We always played hard, and then afterwards, we always gave back to our fans.

[00:17:55] Jody Avirgan:

[00:17:56] Nikki McCray:
I mean, we would stay after, sign those autographs. You know, I think when the WNBA really started, it was very fan friendly. Mothers, daughters, you know, fathers, daughters. It was so new, and people just were so excited about having a women's basketball league and, and that was the beauty in it.

[00:18:18] Jody Avirgan:
Confidence and the winner effect and all that goes into gearing up for game after game. It's a really tricky balance, right? Expect to win and still try and focus on other things. Manage your expectations so that you aren't completely crushed every time you lose.

[00:18:34] Ian Robertson:
So it's important to go in believing that you can win, um, without hanging everything on that. So you, you, you want, you want to get the, the, the brain-enhancing benefits of believing you can do it without having the confidence-sapping effects of, of, of feeling despair at the first setback you get.

[00:18:56] Jody Avirgan:
Imagine a chart. On the X-axis is the time of the game, and the Y-axis—up and down—is your confidence. How do you start the game with your confidence all the way up at the top of the chart and then somehow not have it come down and go back up and come down and go back up as a game or season progresses Ideally, that chart is just a straight line. Confidence turns on, you play the game, game over.

I've struggled with this. My chart does not look like a straight line. I mentioned to Ian my rollercoaster feelings about losing, being hurt, being upset, feeling regret. That thing about trying to fix the past. He told me those feelings are pretty universal, and they're hardwired.

[00:19:42] Ian Robertson:
You have this emotional reaction to losing, which in the brain corresponds to a decline in dopamine activity in the brain's reward network. And it's actually very close to some of the pain centers of the brain. So it feels like pain. It's, it's a, not only is it a, an absence of reward, it's, it's a failure to get an expected reward.

[00:20:11] Jody Avirgan:

[00:20:12] Ian Robertson:
And that, uh, lowers your mood and it lifts your anxiety.

[00:20:16] Jody Avirgan:
Losing feels like pain. It hurts, and it can change your mindset.

[00:20:23] Ian Robertson:
And so it's much easier for us to default to very imprecise modes of thinking, thinking big thoughts like, “Oh, I'm useless.” Like, “Oh, this is terrible. Uh, this is the end.” You know, these big kind of thoughts that are really motivationally debilitating.

[00:20:41] Jody Avirgan:
So that is how we go from a little upset over a loss to landing in a long funk. But Ian says there's even more to it than that.

[00:20:51] Ian Robertson:
Actually, the human brain finds it much easier to learn from winning than it does to learn from losing.

[00:20:58] Jody Avirgan:
Let me say that again. The brain finds it easier to learn from winning because there is less emotion getting in the way. It's fun to reflect on a winning performance. You wanna go back and relive the joy of the moment, appreciate your highlights. But Ian says it's the losses that often have the best information about what you need to fix.

[00:21:18] Ian Robertson:
When you lose, there's usually a more limited set of reasons for why you lose. Losing is potentially a much better teaching signal.

[00:21:29] Jody Avirgan:
But evaluating what went wrong in a losing game is much harder because you're emotional. You don't want to go back and look at your own failures. Still, you should try.

[00:21:41] Ian Robertson:
If you can get your mind away from the, the anxiety and the big, the big debilitating thoughts to analyze them, they’re actually a fantastic, uh, tutorial for you to actually try and correct these things.

[00:21:59] Jody Avirgan:
You can learn from a loss if you can just get past the emotions.

[00:22:05] Ian Robertson:
If you, if you treat it as a, an opportunity for learning, then you've really got, potentially got an advantage for your future development of your skills and performance.

[00:22:17] Jody Avirgan:
It's so hard to look past the gloom of a loss. Focus on what you can improve. And everything we've been saying has just been on the individual level. What about a team? A group of 5, 10, 20 people. Getting a whole team to do their job, stick to their routine, embrace the small victories, learn from losses without turning on each other? People are complicated. Groups of people are really complicated.

[00:22:43] Ian Robertson:
It's possible to have cultures where, where people don't feel overly protective of their egos. Whether the, their ego is not a major factor, but there are individualistic cultures like America and Western Europe, ego’s important. Every, every single person is a brand, and everyone's trying to protect their brand. And so if you, if you suffer, if your team suffers a, a string of defeats, that's threatening to your individual ego, your individual brand. And so you are going to try and engage in all sorts of activities to try and protect your good opinion of yourself.

If you're an individual tennis player or golfer for instance, that has, usually that has to be you sorting things out in your own head. But if you're part of a team, so easy for you to protect your threatened ego by attributing it to other people's behavior in the team, under other people's failures. And that, of course, is hugely corrosive of team bonding, uh, and therefore team confidence.

[00:23:55] Jody Avirgan:
Team confidence. You can think about confidence in yourself. You get out there. You get the job done. And yes, that is confidence. The belief that you can go out there and do something on your own, but trusting that your team won't let you down when you need them, now that is powerful.

[00:24:11] Ian Robertson:
Collective confidence is the belief that we as a group can do something, and that is even more powerful than individual confidence, but it's also a much more difficult thing to attain and to maintain.

[00:24:25] Jody Avirgan:
So, what do we have here? Being prepared, professionalism, celebrating small wins, building individual confidence, and then collective confidence, which walks us right up to the thing that really makes a team go. It's another cliche, but one of those cliches that's a cliche for a reason. Culture, the right culture.

[00:24:47] Nikki McCray:
You always want to have a culture of love, competitiveness, trust.

[00:24:57] Jody Avirgan:
When you look at a losing team, you may see a record maybe 3 and 27. But what I'm realizing is, as much as you want that record to tell the full story, as much as it hurts to lose, you can't focus on just the record. The only way out is to focus on something else, and that's how connected the team is.

[00:25:17] Nikki McCray:
We had great team chemistry.

[00:25:19] Jody Avirgan:

[00:25:19] Nikki McCray:
Like, we liked being around each other. You know, I think when you enjoy being around the people that you work with every day, that makes, that make it better.

[00:25:29] Ian Robertson:
We evolved as a group species. Our natural state is to be bonded with other people.

[00:25:35] Jody Avirgan:
We find purpose together.

[00:25:38] Ian Robertson:
So our, our connection with other people is the biggest source of meaning and of motivation in the world.

[00:25:43] Jody Avirgan:
What's the motivation? Why do it? You play to win the game. Yes, winning is fun. Losing sucks. But when I think back to those season-ending huddles, taking the cleats off, pissed and regretful, one other thing I notice is that with time, my mind does shift from trying to fix the past to appreciating why I do this in the first place. My whys, as they say, are building confidence, discipline, and overall relationships—loving your teammates.

[00:26:16] Ian Robertson:
If you can create a team where people aspire to the same feel as if they are all in with the same values, the performance enhancement you'll get from that will be quite, uh, quite remarkable.

[00:26:29] Jody Avirgan:
Nikki McCray doesn't really remember 3 and 27. She remembers the people she stood shoulder to shoulder with. Because after the glory of winning or the sting of defeat, you're left with the people who were there through it all.

[00:26:45] Nikki McCray:
You gotta love the people, you know, that you work with every day. And the way you do that is by spending time with them and getting to know ‘em. And then once that happens, then trust starts to happen a nd, and then you start to fight for one another.

[00:27:02] Jody Avirgan:
Wait, really, that's our ending. We're literally ending it on “Maybe it was the friends we made along the way”? Alright. Sure. Yeah. I mean, what can I say? Friends are the best.

Up next on Good Sport, a history of why we separate sports by gender, and an argument that maybe it's time to rethink it.

[00:27:27] Laura Pappano:
The history of and practice of organized competitive sport is so riddled with purposeful biases that go beyond physical difference. Yes, there are physical differences, but you know what? There, there are some guys that I'm, I'm better at tennis thann, right?

[00:27:46] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah. I believe it. Um, me!

Good Sport is brought to you by the TED Audio Collective. It's hosted by me, Jody Avirgan. The show is produced by TED. This episode was written and produced by Poncie Rutsch. Our team includes Isabel Carter, Camille Petersen, Sarah Nics, Jimmy Gutierrez, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, and Roxanne Hai Lash. Jake Gorski is our sound designer and mix engineer. Fact-checking by Kate Williams.

Special thanks this episode to Tina Booth, one of the best coaches I've ever had, and the first person who really got me thinking about that magical bubble that great teams find themselves in. We'll be back soon with more Good Sport.

Make sure you're following the podcast in your favorite podcast app, so you get every new episode delivered straight to your device. And leave us a review! We love hearing from our listeners, and our email address is Thanks again for listening. My name is Jody Avirgan, and we'll see you soon.