The Art of Losing Isn’t Hard to Master

I was a small kid – probably no more than 5 or 6 – the first time I saw the show. It hadn’t been on the air for very long by that point, at least not in this new incarnation. And I loved it immediately for its gravity, its arcane nerdiness, the perfectly-accented French of the extremely proper Canadian host. But most of all, unlike the daytime game shows, which mostly rewarded luck and/or retail skills, raw trivia knowledge was the name of the game at Jeopardy!

Within the first few months of regular viewing, I saw a Greek mythology category, and thanks to my D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, I nailed every answer on the board. Pretty soon I wasn’t just getting a few random questions right, I was getting a lot of questions right. More than my parents some days. This is my show, I thought, even back then, as a small child. I want to do this. I WILL do this.

I counted the days until I was 13 and old enough to qualify for the Teen Tournament, and in the meantime I won a few spelling bees and geography bees. When I hit the right age, I applied every year, but never heard back. The years went by, my trivia knowledge expanded, and I continued to throw my name in the hat, but still no response. Finally, a few weeks after my 26th birthday, I got the golden ticket – an invitation to take their test. I passed it easily. Six months later, I was on a plane to Los Angeles, after practicing for weeks by clicking a pen in time with the contestants on the show every night. I couldn’t have been more ready. I’d spent two decades anticipating it. It was my time to shine.

So what happened? Well, you don’t know my name as well as you know that of Ken Jennings, so you can probably guess. I lost. Not only did I lose, I lost on the basis of missing one question. I went home with $2000 and a photograph of myself with Alex Trebek in a nice frame. (To add insult to injury, a friend appeared on the show a year or two later and won a not-insignificant amount of money over multiple days. I think she’s learned by now that the J-word is a sore subject around these parts, but I did my best to remain congratulatory and positive to her. Still, I don’t watch the show anymore.)

I think this one big loss shook something up in me. Ever since, I haven’t been very good at winning over the past few years. It’s rare that I win so much as a Scrabble game. (Have you ever noticed that anytime you have a group of people playing in-person Scrabble, the entire group consists of either the type who plays on Facebook all the time and has all the two-letter words memorized or the type who has apparently grown up under a rock and keeps asking things like, “so are you allowed to spell things diagonally?” I’m closer to the former than the latter, but in the presence of a true expert I’m hopeless.) My boyfriend routinely beats me at any video game in our house and my iphone routinely beats me at Tetris. I’ve had a pretty successful life full of achievements, with a top-notch education and a great career…but on the whole, as an adult, there’s been very little specific winning.

And now, once again and for the first time since Jeopardy, I’m devoting hours of practice to something it feels like I’m born to do, something as natural to me as breathing, and the prospect of competition is exciting.

But with all of that hanging on my head, I have to admit to feeling a little fear. On one level, you’d think I’ve lost so many times at so many things that I wouldn’t be afraid of having it happen again. And I’m not necessarily specifically afraid of losing. Most boxers do lose a fight or two. It’s just …what if I lose every single fight? What if I never win a single match?

I try to tell myself that winning isn’t necessarily what I’m in it for. I’m 30 years old with a bad back – it’s a suboptimal way to be if you’re just starting out as a boxer, and I’ve maintained realistic expectations about what I will be able to do as a boxer. I’m not expecting to go pro and transform the sport in the public eye or anything like that. Some amateur bouts, the Golden Gloves, and a few more readers on this blog is pretty much the extent of what I want. I’ve told my friends that yes, I want them at my first match, but that they shouldn’t expect me to win handily.

On the other hand, there’s no point in going out there if I’m not prepared to win. I think I have the skill set and the conditioning to win, if I can get out of my own head long enough to apply my months of preparation the way I know I’m capable of applying it. And I think I’ll be able to get back up if I lose, and get back in there again. Unlike Jeopardy, I won’t be contractually barred from competing in another boxing match until Alex Trebek retires, so the option’s there to keep going at it until I either win or I’ve had enough.

But I still have some getting-over-it to do before I actually take that step. I need a little more confidence that this won’t end, like so many other things, in defeat. I’m getting there. Just because I lost at a trivia game doesn’t condemn me to losing forever, and the sooner I truly believe that, the sooner I’ll be ready to fight.

And hey, there’s always Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, I guess. They even tape in New York. I’ve passed their test a couple of times, but I’ve never been quite interesting enough to get called for the show. That was before I started boxing, of course, so maybe it’s time to try again. What’s not interesting about a boxer with a jones for useless trivia?

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3 Responses to The Art of Losing Isn’t Hard to Master

  1. erica057 says:

    My trainer lost his first seven amateur bouts. Later in life, he went pro, was undefeated for 10 years, and was a 3-time world champion 🙂

    My unsolicited 2 cents: When I start fretting about nervousness or fear of losing, I try to put all that out of my mind and just think about stuff like throwing hard, straight punches, keeping my chin down, moving forward, and so on. Thinking about what I have to do. Everything else is useless. Think about what you need to do when you’re out there, rather than thinking about winning or losing, because it’s all too easy to become paralyzed by the fear of a loss.

    I lost my first fight by round 1 RSC. I didn’t know what it was like to be in a real fight (and you can’t know until you’ve been there, no matter how brutal your sparring partners are). But it taught me what it was like to have someone who was trying to take my head off. Your first fight COMPLETELY changes the way you train, because you actually know what you’re training for. My second fight, I completely destroyed her in the first round but then gassed in the 2nd and the ref (unjustly, but still) stopped the fight. Thing is, until you’ve gone more than one round, you don’t know what it’s like and you may not be able to adequately prepare for it. I amped up my conditioning after that to a ridiculous degree, always repeating in my head, “Conditioning will not be a factor”. My third fight was at the women’s national golden gloves, and while I lost on points, it was pretty much a toss-up, but moreover, it was a fucking WAR. I damaged her, I recovered, I had gameness, and I was relentless. So was she, of course 🙂 And now I know that I can do it.

    I’m still kind of beating myself up about my first and second fights, because I just kinda gave up in one way or another. I should have beaten both those girls. But I don’t feel bad AT ALL about losing the third. Ultimately, I realized that what I care about is not so much whose hand gets raised at the end (though I *do* care about that) but rather that I want to walk out of there with people thinking that I was an animal, and that if I got beat, it was a hell of a fight. If I lose, it’ll be because she boxed a little better than me, and that’s kinda okay, because I’m not really fighting my opponent — I’m testing myself.

    Don’t even think about all that stuff, like your record and what have you, because when you’re out there and she’s trying to knock you unconscious those thoughts aren’t going to be what helps you. Your first fight, in particular, is just about knowing what it’s like so that you know how to prepare in the future, winning is just a bonus.

    There are so many things that I had to overcome outside of the ring in order to succeed inside of it. I had to learn to be assertive and not a pushover. I had to shrug off self-doubt and anxiety. I had to learn intense focus. I had to learn how to suffer. Fighting confronts you with your demons in a very real, immediate, not to mention painful manner, rather than allowing them to passively exist as a sort of ambient anxiety. The stuff you write about in this post is something that you will have to overcome in order to be a better fighter. But when you do, it makes you love the sport even more 🙂

    • Pink Pearl says:

      This is the most amazing, helpful comment I have received in this (and maybe in any) blog. Thank you so much. I really can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like for me!

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