How to be a good loser: 4 tips parents and kids can take from Caitlin Clark, NCAA finals

Are you a good loser?

Let’s get it out there: Losing stinks.

We saw how hard it can hit you on the sad faces of Caitlin Clark and her Iowa teammates in the final moments of their loss to South Carolina in Sunday’s NCAA women’s basketball final. We watched it in the slow, expressionless manner in which Purdue’s Zach Edey walked off the court after falling to UConn in the men’s title game the next night.

We even heard it in the usually cool and steady Lisa Bluder. The Iowa coach’s voice cracked when she talked about losing and she used humor to fend off the feeling.

Was there consolation, she was asked, that she dropped the last two finals to coaches (Kim Mulkey and Dawn Staley) who had combined to win seven national titles?

“Kind of makes me a double loser right now,” Bluder said, drawing laughs from media members.

Professional and collegiate athletes and coaches hate to lose. You and your kids probably do, too. It’s natural to be upset when you fall short, especially when a group of teammates have drawn close.

But high level coaches like Bluder know coming to grips with losses – owning up to them, even embracing them – can make players better.

How we handle losing can shape our sports experience, and certainly our reputations. We can learn to lose with grace, whether we are a 12-year-old soccer player or college basketball’s all-time leading scorer.

“I’ll be able to sleep at night even though I never won a national championship,” said Clark, whose supernova of a college career ended with the 87-75 loss to South Carolina.

“Everything I’ve done, there’s so much to be proud of," she said. "I don’t sit and sulk about the things that never happened.”

Basketball players and coaches showed us this week how cathartic losses can be if we allow ourselves to fully process them. They can help us assess what we have achieved and push us forward into our next challenge, whether that be another youth game or the WNBA.

Using the examples of Clark and others at Iowa and Purdue, here’s how younger athletes can be “good” losers, too.

1. Don't make excuses. The first step in overcoming a loss is acknowledging it.

Yes, it smarts to congratulate a team that just beat you. Sometimes, as the Purdue men and Iowa women had to do, you first have to stand and watch players celebrate.

As you wait, allow the loss to sink in. Let the anger you feel run through you before you face up with your opponents. Think about why you might have fallen short, and what you can try and do differently the next time. Then walk through the line and congratulate the other team.

You may not feel better immediately, but taking these steps will begin the healing process and motivate you for next time.

“(Donovan) Clingan’s a great player but I just gotta play better,” Edey said of his UConn counterpart, the center’s eyes still burning when he spoke minutes after his team’s 75-60 loss. “It’s one of those games where I can’t go through stretches where I’m not effective. I had a few of those stretches today and that was the game.”

Edey was being hard on himself. He set game highs with 37 points and 10 rebounds. The lesson here is he wasn’t making excuses.

Excuses can come from the player, but also parents who seek to validate or comfort their kids.

It wasn’t your fault.

Your teammates didn’t help out enough.

Your coach put you in an unfair situation.

Coaches, whether they're in high school or winning NCAA championships, tend to hate excuses. During an interview with CBS in the leadup to the men’s finale, UConn's Dan Hurley offered a warning of what can eventually happen if you continue to make them.

“We spend a lot of time really focusing on the parents,” Hurley said. “Are they gonna be fans of their son or are they gonna be parents? Are they going to hold them accountable, have an expectation that, when something goes wrong, that it’s not the coach’s fault. That their son’s gotta work harder, he’s gotta do more, he’s gotta earn his role?

“When you talk to the parents in the recruiting process, are they constantly complaining about the coaches after a bad game or are they sending you a text or are you having a conversation where their son has gotta do more, he’s gotta player harder, he’s gotta work on his skills. They tell on themselves. They drop hints, and (if) you’ve got the wrong type of people in that inner circle around your players, they’ll sink your program.”

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2. Don't allow yourself to be defined by a loss. Be defined by how you respond to it.

There is a difference between being upset about a loss and being a sore loser.

In the second scenario, you fling your baseball glove, hurl a basketball, storm off to the parking lot without shaking your opponents’ hands or single out a teammate for a mistake that might have cost you the game.

In the first, you accept what happened and use the experience to fuel you.

Purdue, a top seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2023 and 2024, suffered a devastating loss to No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson last season. Edey took the loss particularly hard as the national player of the year and the face of the team. But he swallowed that loss and used it to drive him all the way to final this season.

Iowa’s women reached the final last year and lost to LSU, then made a repeat appearance in the championship after losing two players who were three-year starters.

Both teams came together after losses, using the experiences to motivate and inspire them.

“We truly have each other's back,” Clark said. “Maybe we weren't always the most skilled. Maybe we weren't always the tallest. Maybe we weren't always the fastest. But we just believed what we knew we could be in these moments. We trusted one another.”

Some wins can be empty. Maybe you won a game when you didn’t play well or when an opponent made a mistake.

Some losses can be more meaningful. The next time you lose, ask yourself if you were satisfied with your effort. If the answer is no, you have something to work on for next game.

If the answer is yes, there is satisfaction in knowing you did everything you could to try and win.

Clark smiled when discussing South Carolina’s size and rebounding edge (51-29). It wasn’t a smile of defeat as much as one of satisfaction because, like Purdue, her team didn’t give into the disadvantage.

“I'm just proud of our group,” she said. "We never backed down and, you know, we gave it everything we had.”

As difficult as it is, you can accept that you lost to a better team.

“We’ve played against athletes and played against some really good defensive guys this year, and in the tournament, but not the collection of defensive players like UConn has,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "We’d play against somebody and they’d have a lockdown defender. These guys are bringing lockdown defenders off the bench. … Tip the hat to them.”

He shook his head, then turned to discussing Edey.

“I just told him in the locker room, ‘You’re not gonna go on in life and push past here and not deal with adversity,’ ” Painter said. “In the workforce, in relationships, everything; you’re going to deal with adversity. And he was superior dealing with adversity.”

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3. Find a way to respect, or remember, your opponent

Like Edey, Braden Smith, Purdue’s point guard, gave UConn it’s due, but he was still coming to grips with what his team couldn’t accomplish when he met the media.

Some of the most competitive athletes never come to grips with losses. But when they look back at their athletic careers, they remember moments more than wins or losses. Moments like your first home run or 3-pointer or, more simply, the time you and a kid standing on first base struck up a conversation. Maybe that kid became a close friend.

Or moments like what happened in the handshake line after UConn won and, as Gregg Doyel noted in the Indianapolis Star, Hurley latched onto Smith to compliment him.

When NC State’s 6-foot-8 DJ Burns locked up with the 7-4 Edey during the national semifinals, they exchanged smiles and playful words.

“Bro, excuse my language, you big as hell,” Burns later said he told Edey. “I'm like, 'Yo, I’m going to figure you out bro.' We had a little joke moment."

Edey later complimented Burns on his play in the game.

The next time you lose, try to find a moment from the game that gives you a positive memory. You don’t have to share this moment with anyone. You can keep it to yourself and pull it out when you still feel sad about the result.

It’s the overall experience from sports that we’re after, especially when we’re young, and we can’t always get that through wins and losses.

4. Plastic trophies are nice. Team experiences last forever.

The next time you lose, take stock of your sports journey, wherever you are on it.

Kate Martin, Iowa’s six-year guard did so when she got a question from 9-year-old Lily Goodwin, who was representing Cleveland radio station 95.9 FM, following the South Carolina game.

“What would you say to kids striving to be you right now?” asked Goodwin, who goes by DJ Lily Jade.

“I used to sleep with an Iowa women’s basketball poster on my ceiling,” Martin said, her eyes brightening. “To be in this position and to play for Coach Bluder and make it to back-to-back national championships, I just feel super grateful. It’s because I worked really hard and I dreamed big. I’m not some all-American, five-star recruit out of high school. I never was. People believed in me, I believed in myself and here I am. If I can do it, so can you.”

We don’t have to go through a journey like Martin and Iowa did to love sports. Bluder’s emotional postgame speech in the locker room, shared via social media, was meant to capture that journey, but it can also remind us why we play the games.

“I’m proud of all of you guys so much, each and every one of you, so do not hang your heads,” Bluder said, her voice shaking. “Celebrate the fact that we were here. Celebrate that we got to do this together. Please? Because that’s what’s important.

“Yes you love a shiny trophy but the impact that you had on young women in this sport doesn’t get tarnished.”

The tears from Bluder and those listening to her were much more about the end of their time together as teammates than the loss.

“I need to soak this in and enjoy these last few moments with my teammates, because these are some of my best friends,” Clark said when she reached the podium. “They'll be my best friends for the rest of my life. And that's what matters to me the most.”

Our sports careers, like our lives, are bound to be filled with ups and downs. You can’t expect to win every game, even if you’re Caitlin Clark.

Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. His column is posted weekly. For his past columns, click here.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to be a good loser, like Caitlin Clark: 4 tips for youth sports