UNC basketball’s Courtney Banghart helps an eager athlete forget about the result — and live for the chase.
“Ask the Coach” is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
Soccer is basically my life. I love it, I’m pretty good at it, and all my closest friends are on the team. After winning our high school state championship two years in a row, last season we lost in the playoffs. I can’t stand losing and haven’t been able to get over it, to be honest. Now I’m worried about the season ahead, whenever we start back up. Our three best players have graduated, and the younger ones coming through aren’t very strong. It’s also my senior year, so it’s my last chance to make it happen. I’m not sure I’m good enough to make a college team, so I really want to go out on a high note. How do I get past the disappointment of last season?
Getting Overworked About Losing
17-year-old soccer player
Indeed, GOAL, loss hurts. But I’d rather lose than not play.
I’ve endured plenty of big losses as a player and a coach. In 2015, at Princeton, we went into the postseason as the highest-seeded Ivy League team in NCAA tournament history and the only unbeaten team, women or men, in Division I basketball.
We lost in the second round. In front of more than 18,000 people. Ouch.
In the locker room after the game, I said to my players, “I get that this hurts. I’m hurting too. But that pain doesn’t mean we failed. It means we went all in.”
Yeah, you lost. Yeah, you can give 1,000 percent and still lose. But let’s get something very clear: You are not a loser. Only one team wins it all, but more than one team goes all in. And if you go all in, you’re a winner.
I’d invite you to turn your fear of losing into a fear of missing an opportunity. That’s a shift of focus I learned in high school. I was a state champion tennis player, but when it came time to defend my title, I was going up against a complete phenom. And I knew my chances of beating her were slim. But I also knew that if I was that afraid to lose, I might as well just give up altogether — and I wasn’t about to do that.
Only one team wins it all, but more than one team goes all in. And if you go all in, you’re a winner.
So I went for it, hoping that it would be a rainy day for her and a sunny one for me. Turned out, it wasn’t. I didn't win. But heck, playing for that crowd against that level of opponent and losing was a way better outcome than living with the regret of not going for it. And guess what? I came back and won the championship again the next year (the phenom graduated).
The other thing that helped me turn that loss into a win was simply honoring the moment, feeling the pain, and then letting it go. Looking back is for when you’re retired, not for when you’re striving. And me, my players — and athletes in general — we strive. We’re hunters, always in pursuit.
On Twitter, I use the hashtag #inpursuit a lot. It’s my mantra. But it doesn’t mean I’m in pursuit of the next win. It means I’m in pursuit of the next opportunity. And I’ve discovered that the harder you work, the bigger the opportunities that come your way.
I see a major opportunity ahead of you: a rebuilding year. Survival and evolution are all about adaptation. Darwin said that, and I love it — and live by it. I don’t go into a rebuilding year thinking, “Well, this is going to be awful.” I go in thinking, “How am I going to adapt?”
The harder you work, the bigger the opportunities that come your way.
So, there’s less talent on your team this season. OK. That happens. How are you going to adapt? Considering you’ve got a team of mostly younger players, you could become a leader. Inspire greatness in them. I’ve always been fascinated by the mental aspect of sports. In fact, I was a neuroscience major in college. You probably know intuitively that when you’re confident, you play better and learn faster. So boosting confidence is a great place to start.
When I was a player, I built up my teammates’ confidence in a lot of little ways. Slapping fives; saying, “Hey, you played great today”; offering a ride home, talking on the way about what went well. These little things give people a ton of confidence to push past limits they might be putting on themselves. Plus, building relationships like this — that’s what stays with you, not the wins and losses.
As for thinking this is your last shot, you’re the only one who sets those limits. In 2000, when I was offered my first position as a tennis and basketball coach, I was, like, well, coaching isn’t really a job. I’m now 20 years in and couldn’t be happier. So yes, for you it may be the end of wearing a high school jersey. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the end of your career in sport unless you want it to be. You’re the only one with the power to determine when things end for you. And how.
Courtney Banghart is the head women's basketball coach at the University of North Carolina. Previously head coach at Princeton, she was named the 2015 Naismith National Coach of the Year and served as an assistant coach for the 2017 USA Basketball Women's U23 National Team. A leading player at Dartmouth, Banghart set the as-yet unbroken Ivy League record for career three-pointers. Banghart serves on the board of directors for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and on the NCAA Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee.
Illustration: Harrison Freeman