UVa Basketball: Lessons from Dealing with Adversity

August 28, 2019 by

By John Schorling

Last year, I wrote a Monthly Musing about the UVa men’s basketball team and the disappointment they and many others felt as a result of their loss in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament.  I did end it by saying that this year “might even end with UVa finally winning a national championship”. I have been thinking about them again as students return to Grounds.  Things are very different now as the team has gone from the first number 1 seed to ever lose to a number 16 seed to winning the tournament and yes, becoming national champions.  This is considered by many to be one of the most remarkable turn-arounds in sports history.  Yet it didn’t just happen.  A big part of what made it possible were the choices the coaches and the players made in how they dealt with this historic loss.  Their story has become an inspiring lesson in how it is possible to grow through adversity.

When things don’t go our way it is easy to become disheartened and discouraged.  Our default narrative, or story that we tell ourselves about the event, can easily focus on blaming ourselves and thinking we’re not good enough.  However powerful these thoughts may seem, they are just narratives or stories, and we have choices about whether we feed them or believe them or not.  Mindfulness practice can be very helpful in being able to see thoughts as thoughts, getting our attention out of the thought stream itself, and instead observing the thoughts as they arise. If we don’t do this, we can easily get stuck in thinking about how we wish we had done things differently in the past.  But the past is past and we can’t change it.  What we can do is shift from focusing on how we wished things had gone differently to asking ourselves what we can learn from this experience and apply to our behavior moving forward.

One of the things we can do to move beyond an adverse event is to take responsibility for how our actions may have contributed.  The men’s basketball team certainly did this. Before last season started, Tony Bennett said about dealing with their first round loss to UMBC, “I think it forces you to look at some things. We’ve been intentional about realizing this. I think it’s a mistake if you just say, ‘It happened. It was a fluke,’ and sweep it under the rug and not deal with it. I think you have to look at it and deal with it.”( )

One of the ways the team did this was based on the lessons from a TEDx talk by Donald Davis that Coach Bennett watched on his wife Laurel’s recommendation. “It’s this idea that ‘if you learn to use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place you wouldn’t have gone any other way,’ ” Bennett said. “Quite honestly, that’s how we and I’m choosing to use last year. The success and the praise at the highest level and the historic records, and then the humbling crushing loss at the end, I think if we use it right — just the fact that it happened, it’s part of our story. You have to embrace it. That’s not going to change. How we respond and how we use it, it’s equipping us, maybe empowering us, to go to a place we haven’t gone.” ( )

One of the points of the talk by Donald Davis that Laurel Bennett had seen was that by telling stories in intentional ways we can change our relationship to events in the past.  Coach Bennett watched the talk and then had the other coaches and the players watch it.  In it, Davis speaks about the lesson he learned from his father who had cut himself with an ax as a child and lost his kneecap, subsequently walking with a limp and being physically limited.  Davis’s grandmother made his father tell the story of his getting injured repeatedly and from different perspectives which altered his perception of it.  Instead of feeling limited by not getting to work on their farm with his brothers, he began seeing it as a gift that allowed him to spend more time studying and ultimately to get an education that helped him get a good job that he would not have had otherwise.  As his grandmother told his father, “You’re not telling this story to change what happened. You’re telling this story to change you.” ( )

Doing this isn’t necessarily easy.  Virginia guard Kyle Guy, who ultimately was named Most Outstanding Player in this year’s Final Four, has openly discussed some of his struggles dealing with last year’s UMBC loss. ​As he wrote in an open Facebook letter “But here is why I am thankful for this happening to my team and I. We got a head start. In life and on the court. I realized the more time I spent sulking the more opportunities I was missing to grow. I realized every second is an opportunity not an obligation.” ( )

All these lessons were used by the basketball team last year. They not only took responsibility for what had happened, they embraced it.  They acknowledged their disappointment and then told their story in a way that was empowering rather than defeating.  They recognized it was how they chose to respond moving forward that could make a difference.  Doing this won’t always lead to as much success as the basketball team had, but what they did is a reminder that how we deal with adversity depends on being mindful of things as they are and the choices we have.  When we do this, sometimes the results can be remarkable and exceed all our expectations, allowing us “to buy a ticket to a place we couldn’t have gotten to any other way”.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings