Sally Jenkins: Losing is the classroom where champions learn to win

The age-old question in any sport is, do you learn more from winning or from losing? Maybe the reason we have such a hard time arriving at a definitive answer is because we look at them as separate experiences instead of viewing them as related. Muffet McGraw and Notre Dame are in their fifth straight women’s NCAA Final Four, and on four previous occasions they’ve suffered defeat. But here’s the thing about finishing second: It means you could have been first.

Each loss is its own brand of pain and has its own cause. McGraw and the Irish have become connoisseurs of heartbreak. They’ve lost in three of the last four national championship games; sometimes it was a nervous collapse, or a catastrophic injury, or an unforgiving rim that made the difference, and sometimes they just met an unstoppable adversary.

In 2011 they were clipped by Texas A&M over the final two minutes, 76-70. In 2012, they had no answer to Baylor and the 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, 80-61. And in 2014 they lost their star Natalie Achonwa to a knee injury, leaving them shorthanded against UConn, 79-58.

“We’ve been there a number of times and not been able to finish,” McGraw says. “Each year, we feel like maybe this will be our year.”

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Think about that statement. For four straight years McGraw and the Fighting Irish have experienced a crushing defeat. Four straight times they’ve had to extend dignified yet utterly deprived handshakes to the winner and live with loss. For a year, as Pat Conroy wrote in My Losing Season, “You have to take the word ‘loser’ and add it to your resume and walk around with it on your name tag.”

Yet somehow the Irish have been able to lose, without losing heart. That’s a remarkable feat, and it’s worth looking at.

The great high school coach Morgan Wooten believed, “You learn more from losing than winning. You learn how to keep going.” Billie Jean King on the other hand, had no use at all for losing. “Losing is forever,” she said.

The fact is, losing is a far more common experience than winning, even for the greatest champions. The golf record book shows that Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson finished second in more major championships than they won. Ivan Lendl lost four Grand Slam tennis finals before he ever won his first, Andre Agassi three. Pat Summitt lost seven Final Fours before she won the first of her eight championships. For that matter, she coached 38 seasons – which means that 30 times, she went home feeling like a failure. Geno Auriemma and UConn have also won eight titles – yet finished with losses nearly three times as often.

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What these people demonstrate is that in order to win on a really large scale, you have to be willing to lose – a lot. They have in common a basic lack of vanity. Time after time, they come back for more, willing to experience the radiological exposure of failure under the brightest lights. As my friend Summitt once so eloquently explained to me, “A lot of people are afraid of commitment because it means they’ll have to say, ‘That’s the best I can do.’ Too many people opt out, because they’re afraid of keeping score.”

There is a large body of literature devoted to the virtues of failure or loss in other fields. In science, for instance, failure is considered essential to knowledge: the good seeker explores, experiments, fails, and repeats. Thomas Edison once said, “I make more mistakes than anyone I know. And eventually I patent them.”

My personal favorite ruminator on success and failure is author J.K. Rowling, who delivered a tour de force lecture on the subject at Harvard’s 2008 commencement. Rowling at one point was a failure on an epic scale, divorced, jobless and poor. But rock bottom, as she puts it, became the solid foundation on which she rebuilt.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all,” she says. “In which case you fail by default.”

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McGraw and the Fighting Irish could adopt that statement as their team motto. Give them this: They don’t fail by default. There was no reason for the Irish to make it back to the Final Four this season; they could easily have defaulted and called this a rebuilding year after they lost two senior leaders in Achonwa and Kayla McBride to graduation. Seven of their 13 players are either freshmen or sophomores. Yet they have gone 35-2, and have developed the prettiest and most predatory offense in the country except for U-Conn.

“This one was the hardest,” McGraw said the other night after the Irish advanced. “We had to work the hardest to get to this one. What a great job by this young team that we thought maybe was a year away.”

The truth about winning and losing is that neither has much value by itself. If you lose all the time it becomes a bad habit, and if you win all the time you develop a narcissistic tendency to assume you are more valuable than other people. In either case, “Talent and intelligence never inoculated anyone against the caprice of the fates,” as Rowling says. What makes a worthwhile champion is the ability to see the winning and the losing as intertwined, an ongoing process of self-inquiry, in which the self is always left wanting.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at