I will always be a loyal fan of the Iowa State Cyclones. I have so many great memories of watching them with friends and family. But there are also a few not-so-great memories of times when they had a big game and… choked. Years ago, I used to get so upset when my team lost that I would feel like hitting something.

The same may apply when our political party loses, our project team at work performs poorly, or our kids do badly at school. For some reason, we take these letdowns personally – even though there’s often little we can do about them.

Do you feel upset when your team loses?

For many people it’s no big deal when their team loses – whether it’s a football game or their kid’s spelling bee final. They’re disappointed, but they move on without allowing the loss to deeply upset them. But for others – including me in the past – it can make us really depressed or angry.

Some of us may become irritable, impatient, and hyper-sensitive, priming us to pick a fight or take it out on someone. We might get agitated and feel a need to physically vent our frustration. Add alcohol to the mix, and it makes it even harder to control ourself.

Obviously, this isn’t pleasant for the people around us – our loved ones may feel irritated, intimidated, or even scared of us. If our children are around, they might wonder if it’s their fault we’re getting so worked up. When we’re trying to work on improving our behavior, this is exactly the kind of thing that can set us back and damage our relationships.

Why we get upset when our team loses

Wearing our favorite band’s t-shirt, cheering for our kids’ soccer team, or watching a game with our friends actually has a deep meaning. Being a fan is the same as belonging to a tribe: it gives us a community and a sense of identity. But some of us identify too strongly with something beyond our control, and that can cause problems.

When our team plays badly or suffers from a poor call by the referee, it’s like it’s a personal assault on us. If our preferred candidate loses an election or our kids get poor grades, we respond as if we failed to measure up. Aligning our identity with something external means a loss for our team feels like a hit to our identity and a loss for us.

Coping with team losses

If the above is resonating with you, the first step is to recognize what’s happening. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a proud soccer mom or dad, striving to be successful at work, or caring about political issues. But if our team’s losses make us upset and lead to harmful behavior, it’s important to ask ourselves why and commit to change. If our reaction is more than just disappointment, we’re probably thinking distorted thoughts and need to challenge our beliefs.

It’s not the end of the world

Sports, school, work, politics, life – it all has its ups and downs. Remind yourself that it isn’t awful or the end of the world when your team loses a game or your kid fails an exam. Put things in context: there’s always another season, or grades aren’t the most important thing. Another question to ask yourself is, “Will this really matter to me on my death bed, or even in five years?”

It’s out of our control

I often say this, because it’s true: there’s little in life we can control, except our own choices and beliefs. However much we wish it were otherwise, we don’t have any power over the outcomes of a baseball game or even an election. Sure, let the loss motivate you to support local baseball or campaign for the causes you care about – but let go what you cannot control. Not only does this reduce stress, but we’re actually more capable of then focusing on making the most of what we can do.

Even for things we influence, like our project team at work or our kids, have limits on our ability to determine outcomes. No matter how much we guide and support them, our partners, co-workers, children, and others are independent people. They make their own choices, and they sometimes make mistakes. Being harsh with them for their failures is not only operating outside of our boundaries, but is also likely to cause harm.

Mistakes do not define anyone

If we really want to see our team or tribe do their best, we have to accept that, like everyone, they will sometimes fail. Mistakes don’t have to define us, but they can teach us valuable lessons if we allow them to. This goes for everyone – our partners, our kids, our co-workers, me, and you.

However much we throw ourselves into supporting bands, political parties, sports teams, or our kids, they are not reflections of us, nor we of them. We may be part of the same tribe or family, but their mistakes and failures are not ours. Who we are and how good and worthy we are is not determined by anything external to us.

In fact, the only thing that really defines us is what’s going on inside. We are defined by our character, our values, and how we treat others. Don’t give up on your sports team or your community by any means, but remember – our real identity comes from within.

Faith note

Who, or what, gives you your identity? Your favorite team? Community? Friends? Family?

There’s a source of identity that’s even more credible than any of these—the one that made you—God. As your creator, God says you are His beloved child. He claims you. He wants you to be part of His family. He made you on purpose, for a purpose.

When we accept that identity, it changes how we feel about the things happening around us. Our team will still lose, our kid may not make the travel squad, or our work team may still get dissolved. However, we suddenly see these events in a different, far less personal light.

We can ask ourselves what, if anything, we can learn and do better next time. Our value, however, has already been assured. The freedom that comes with this powerful identity shift is available to everyone. All we have to do is to accept God’s invitation to be part of His family.

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