Are the Oilers “sick” of losing, or “sick” from losing?: an article by the Prof

It hurts to be a loser, as almost every junior high kid in Canada knows who has seen the right thumb and forefinger of another person held in their direction: “Loser” is one of the worst taunts a kid can get –it hurts. But, losing hurts adults – perhaps even as much as kids.

Many of my friends have no sympathy for the Oiler players. They believe that when you “earn” a salary of over a million per year that makes you fair game for any abuse a fan wants to hurl at you. I suppose a valid case can be made for treating professionals with disrespect if you want – you have “paid for your ticket” after all. That said, being a professional anything doesn’t make us immune to feelings, hopes, or the common emotions all humans share.

When you are a professional athlete, losing is a failure to reach your goals, your team’s goals, your fan’s goals, and – in the case of the City of Champions – your city’s goals. Unless a team is clearly over-matched, in most cases losing also means a failure to perform to the best of your ability – you know you can do better.

What makes losing so difficult for professional athletes is that it is both internalized and externalized failure. You feel rotten inside because you fail to reach your own goals and have to live with yourself, and you feel like everyone else knows you have failed, too. You have failed your family, friends, fans, and coaches. Worse perhaps, you have failed your teammates. That has to affect you – no one wants someone on the team where people don’t mind losing.

So, how does losing affect a professional athlete? Research says that losing can affect an athlete both emotionally and also cognitively. In other words, you not only feel “down,” but you lose your ability to think straight when you are “down.” On the ice, frustration boils over and players take stupid penalties that hurt their team’s chances, and the losing spirals downward – creating even more losing.

The losing steak is accompanied by a series of really bad days – even at home. That is why the losing “habit” is so hard to break – emotionally you are down and cognitively you can’t think straight. As sport’s psychologists tell us: “Losing is overwhelming.”

If losing goes on too long, it threatens not only a professional athlete’s confidence, but also his identity. Losing one’s identity, for a bunch of guys who have been the cream of the crop everywhere they have played, can be devastating.

The Oilers’ players have experienced success everywhere they were – or they would not have made it to the NHL. They were always stars and were always treated like stars. Jordan Eberle, at the World Juniors, was touted as a rising star – die-hard Oilers’ fans saw it and we are now waiting for him to emerge on the Oilers’ scene. But Patrick O’Sullivan led the USA team to the 2004 Gold Medal at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. Now, he is right in the middle of the Oilers’ woes. Like many of his Oiler teammates, this experience of losing is new.

Finally, sports research tells us that losing makes you physically sick because it increases stress and lowers immune systems. You physically and mentally slide into weakness. Medically, losing elevates toxins – harmful chemicals like cortisol – into the body. Excess cortisol, the result of stress, can damage the body through increased blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It also suppresses the immune system and, when combined with oxidative stress, tears down body tissues.

It is not surprising that the long losing streak the Oilers are experiencing is also accompanied by excessive “flu-like” symptoms or even “the injury bug.” Most of us think that losing is the result of illness or injury, but the opposite is also true – losing leads to illness and injury.

The Edmonton Oilers are really down – and it will likely be hard to get going again. The injuries and illness are likely to continue. And, the confidence and self-identity will likely continue to slide. In the game against the Stars last night – how unlucky can you get? It is like the worst karma ever! The Oilers need like a dozen lucky breaks to get going and regain confidence.

There is no doubt that the Oilers are sick of losing, but given what we know – they are also sick from losing.


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