Character Helped Define the NCAA Basketball and Hockey Championships

The Way You Win Matters™. It isn’t just about playing the game honorably and responsibly. It’s also about handling victory with humility and defeat with grace.

As we witnessed at this year’s NCAA Division 1 Basketball and Hockey Championships, one’s strength of character is tested with so much at stake.

Victory With Humility

Saturday’s NCAA Men’s Hockey Championship at TD Garden in Boston featured favored Boston University against Providence College, a team that was upset in its conference tournament and almost didn’t make the NCAA tournament field. BU carried the play the first two periods out-shooting the Friars 40-23. The Terriers led 3-2 with less than 9-minutes to play. That’s when Providence scored on the luckiest of breaks. BU goalie Matt O’Conner mishandled a high flip shot from center ice. He gloved it easily, but didn’t realize that the puck had dropped out of his glove. As, he looked for it, the puck rolled slowly into the net behind him. There wasn’t a Providence skater anywhere near him. The own goal stunned BU. The Friars scored again a couple of minutes later to complete the comeback, and win their first-ever NCAA Hockey Championship.

Naturally, the Friars were ecstatic. While outplayed for much of the game, they had never given up or given in. By hanging tough, they had kept the game close and given themselves a chance to win.

But, what struck me was that, while the focus was on celebrating the national championship they had just won, Friars coach Nate Leaman and his players expressed both respect and empathy for the BU team and its goalie, in their media interviews. I thought that was quite admirable and spoke to the team’s character.

A few days earlier, I had filled-in as host of the Nate Leaman Radio Show on Sports Radio 103.7, WEEI-FM. Providence College Basketball Coach Ed Cooley joined the show and I asked them about the importance each of them places on “character” in their programs.

Empathy is Undervalued as a Leadership Trait

At the NCAA Women’s Final Four, we saw an act of compassion I would think any parent would be proud to see from a son or daughter in competition.

Often, friendships are formed with players who end-up playing on other teams. This was the case with Notre Dame’s Jewel Loyd and South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell. The two basketball All-America players are close friends and their two teams met in the national championship game.

Trailing by a point to Notre Dame with 13.9 seconds left, South Carolina took its last time out to set-up a final play. Mitchell was to take the last shot or create one for a teammate. But, Notre Dame’s defense denied her a driving lane and Mitchell dribbled out almost the entire clock trying to make a play, before taking a last-second desperation shot that missed. She collapsed to the court in tears. After first celebrating with her team, Loyd came over to Mitchell and spent time comforting her friend. It was simple act of kindness, but one that not every player would think to do in the midst of celebrating such a big win.

Kindness, compassion, and empathy are not character traits that make you less of a competitor. They make you a better one. Understanding how others feel is a valuable leadership and communication skill in sports, business, and life. The better we connect with others, the more effective we will be in working together toward a common goal, whether it’s to win a game, team-up on a school project, or collaborate with a colleague in the workplace.

Coach K and Bo Ryan on Winning and Losing

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has demonstrated over the years, the ability to publicly handle winning and losing with class. We saw humility from him after his team’s come-from-behind victory over Wisconsin in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game. And, Coach K is even better in those times in which his team loses. He’s gracious and respectful in defeat.

That was not the case when Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan spoke to the media following his team’s loss to Duke in the title game.

Ryan’s team played outstanding basketball in the tournament. His players were well-prepared, confident, and they executed well on both ends of the floor. But, when the Badgers gave-up a 9-point 2nd half lead and lost to Duke, coach Ryan was anything but gracious in defeat. Instead of focusing on his own team’s play or on crediting Duke for its comeback, Coach Ryan chose to focus on his disappointment in the way the game was officiated, especially in the last 10-minutes.

Placing blame on others for losing is not a message that reflects leadership. And, as physically as Wisconsin played in the semifinal win over Kentucky and in the title game vs. Duke, it was a curious complaint from the Badgers coach.

The overall tenor of Ryan’s post-game remarks was disappointing, especially given his experience and ability.

How can a coach expect his players to be accountable for their play and handle defeat with grace, if the coach isn’t setting a good example?

Kentucky’s Season Ends

No one denies the pain that an athlete or coach may feel after a loss. And, when it occurs on the biggest of stages, with a perfect season on the line, it’s understandable that the hurt goes deep.

Kentucky had entered its national semifinal game against Wisconsin with a 38-0 record. Kentucky lost. Instead of a match-up against Duke for the title and a chance for a perfect 40-0 season, the Wildcats season was over.

There 38-1 record was no consolation.

While Kentucky coach John Calipari and some of his players took part in the customary handshakes with the opponents at the end of the game, several Kentucky players did not. Willie Cauley-Stein left the court immediately. According to reports, the Harrison brothers did not go through the handshake line, either. And, Kentucky Assistant Coach John Robic reportedly had to call other players back to shake hands with the Wisconsin players.

The lack of sportsmanship reflected poorly on the Kentucky players. Andrew Harrison’s regrettable remark about Wisconsin’s star, Frank Kaminsky, that was picked-up by the microphone during the post-game media session, also fed into the perception that the Kentucky players had been disrespectful in defeat.

Coach Calipari chalked it up to young players making a mistake in the heat of the moment.

This Kentucky team deserves great credit, not just for its 38-1 season, but for the willingness of an exceptionally talented group of players to sacrifice playing time and individual stats to accomplish something great as a team. Had they handled the loss to Wisconsin with grace, their remarkable season would be better appreciated.

Why It’s Important

So, what is the value in shaking hands before a competition or in taking part in a handshake line with an opponent afterwards?

The value is in what it represents. Handshakes are a sign of mutual respect among competitors.

As a pre-game gesture, the handshake communicates a commitment to respect the opponent and the game by competing fairly and responsibly under the same rules and conditions, so that the winner is determined on merit.

As a post-game tradition, it is a sign of respect for the game and for the competition that just took place. While many go though the handshake line quickly, with little thought, the tradition is a way of signaling that however hard the two teams fought, any hard feelings are left on the field. Beyond that, it is an opportunity to show respect for a particular opponent. Coach K, for instance, frequently offers personal congratulations or kind words to opposing players, depending on the game’s outcome.

An Emphasis in Youth Sports

How do you want to see your son or daughter respond to adversity?

How do you want them to behave toward an opponent they’ve just defeated?

Youth team sports provides young athletes continual opportunities to develop positive character traits that will help them in life. Learning to compete with integrity, win with humility, and be gracious in defeat, are valuable lessons that can come from playing youth sports. They help prepare young people for the ups and downs they face away from sports competition.

It’s why we at Even Fields™ view youth sports as being more about life lessons, than just game scores.

By consistently modeling positive behaviors, and by making character and integrity a priority, youth coaches and parents can help young athletes learn that in sports and life, the Way You Win (and lose) matters.

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