This column appeared in the Argus Leader on Dec. 19, 2016
One of the most difficult challenges that coaches face is guiding a team or a program through losses. I was reminded of that this season watching down-to-the-wire finishes in college football and the NFL. Some of those tightly contested games were the end of the road in the playoffs, and others were longtime rivalries. In every game, however, both teams left every ounce of effort on the field. It is safe to say that no matter the level of play, athletes, coaches and fans all aspire to walk off the field on the winning side.
It is an extremely tough but necessary part of any sport that coaches learn to demonstrate great leadership during adverse circumstances. Obviously, you prepare your team to go in and win, and while losing is never enjoyable, it can particularly sting when it is the last game of a career or there is a fierce rivalry. It is especially difficult to convince athletes and fans that an otherwise extremely successful season has been worthwhile when you end the season with a playoff loss. Your team could reach every performance benchmark and have outstanding results, but getting knocked out of the playoffs makes everyone feel the season was a failure. Leadership during these times is a true test for coaches, and it can make or break the future of a program.
As the coach, you must work to bring your team together during these situations. You have to be willing to look everyone in the eye and explain that losing is tough and feels like the worst thing you could ever experience. No one wants to let all the hard work come to an end without that final victory, but a coach needs to help the team realize how many things have been accomplished during the season. It is easy to forget how far a team has come and how many milestones have been reached, so as the leader of those athletes, it is extremely important to help your team see their many achievements.
The lesson of learning to overcome difficult losses is not an easy one. Most athletes are ultra competitive and extremely loyal to their teammates and program, and that makes losing a bitter pill to swallow. When I was a junior in college, we played a tightly contested game in the national quarterfinals. I did not play well, and our team lost a game that we most likely should have won. Seeing the seniors walk off the field for the last time was one of the most difficult things that I had to do as an athlete. That visual really tore at me and was a huge motivating factor going into my senior year. Those same seniors were hurt and disappointed with the loss, but they were quick to approach me and the other returning players and tell us to remember that feeling and come back next year with the motivation to win the national title. I was amazed that they could set aside their disappointment and still have the leadership qualities to guide us moving forward. That situation taught me invaluable lessons about team dynamics and leadership, and it informs my view as a coach to this day.
When working with a team or athletes who experience that difficult loss, try to focus on the things they have gained from the season. Many will have developed a work ethic that will help them throughout their life, or they may have learned values that will help them become better citizens and family members. In every team situation, those athletes forge lifelong friendships, and as it was it my situation, perhaps the stinging loss will provide them the motivation to continue to work harder and hopefully get another chance at victory.
It is good to remember that everyone is working hard all season long to raise that trophy, but very few people actually get the opportunity to experience that feeling. A coach who can lead the team through the emotional challenges of a tough loss and instill motivation and a desire to improve in order to take that challenge again is extremely important to the success of a program. Find the positives in performances and the season, and turn those into fuel for the next run. True leaders will aspire to improve and go for it again, and they will inspire those around them to do the same.
Coach Kurtiss Riggs is the owner of Riggs Premier Football and director of the Sanford Power Riggs Premier Football Academy, which provides football training, camps and clinics for area athletes.