“You Cannot Be Serious!” The Ugliness of Winning at all Costs

Posted by Kenneth N. Winkler on

I recently lost a men’s doubles tennis match in the city finals of a recreational tennis league in Atlanta.   It was a disappointing loss, especially because my entire team would have won the City Finals had we won our match.   What was most disappointing, however, is how the match ended.

I was serving at 3-4 in the third and decisive set.   This was a critical game.  If I failed to hold my serve we would be in a tough spot.  During a point in my service game, one of my opponents hit a ball that sailed towards the baseline.   In my judgment the ball landed out.   It was a close call, but I was certain in my mind that it was out.   So I called the ball out.  It was an honest call.

My opponents became outraged by my call, as did some of their teammates in the stands.   One of the opponents told me that my call was “ridiculous” and in a poor impersonation of John McEnroe told me that I “could not be serious”.   I explained that I saw the ball land out and that my call was not going to change.   My unwillingness to change my call was not well received.  Additional obnoxious comments were lodged towards me and my teammate.  The play continued.

The very next point, I hit a second serve squarely in the middle of the service box.  My opponent did not attempt to return the serve.   Instead, he stopped the ball with his racquet and called the serve out.  Like everyone else, I was shocked by his call and outraged by his lack of sportsmanship.  It was bad enough that he had essentially called me a cheat in a recreational tennis league, but to purposely call a ball out in this situation was unimaginable.   I could hear people in the stands making comments and I knew the situation had gotten ugly.

Ironically, I had just finished reading Brad Gilbert’s book “Winning Ugly”.  It’s a great book and I learned a lot about the mental part of tennis and how important it is to stay focused in a tennis match.  Among other things, Gilbert wrote about how he mentally overcame tirades by McEnroe and Jimmy Connors that were designed to disrupt his rhythm.   My natural instinct was to jump over the net.  But I applied Gilbert’s approach and chose not to challenge the call.

Despite my efforts to block out what had happened, the match was not the same.   It was no longer fun. This was not the first time that they had questioned our calls.   I wanted to win, but deep down I did not care to be on the court any longer.  As a result, I did not play my best tennis.   The rest of the match was pretty much a blur.   We lost my service game and the next and final game, but not before our opponents questioned another call and displayed other questionable conduct.

After the match, I tried to understand what had happened.  I could not believe that my opponents were willing to do something so egregious, especially in front of their family and friends.  And for what purpose?  To win a recreational tennis league match?  Whether it was due to pressure or anger, my opponents were willing to cheat me out of a point to win.  They assumed the worst of me and my partner and they were willing to retaliate.

Sadly, this mentality displays itself too often in sports and business.   Instances of price fixing, unfair trade practices, and systemic discrimination continue to make headlines.  Investigations about payment for players, cover-ups, and academic scandals also seem endless.

The Penn State child molestation scandal is a glaring example of what can happen when winning becomes too important.   The report by Chief Investigator Louis Freeh indicated that coaches and executives at the university had knowledge about the horrific acts of coach Jerry Sandusky, but failed to take appropriate action. There is much debate about why this happened and who is to blame, but clearly the fear of publicity and a desire to win football games influenced university leaders to ignore a problem.

I am still bitter about my match.  But from this experience I have drawn some reminders that can help my clients make prudent employment decisions and maintain their integrity:

  • Maintain Business Ethics:  Conflict should be handled in a professional manner.  My opponents chose to question our calls in an unsportsmanlike manner and made decisions that impacted the integrity of the match.  In business, companies should define how people within the organization should interact with employees, customers and vendors.  Doing the right thing, even in tough situations, needs to be stressed from the top down.  Policies and practices should encourage open discussions and create an environment where employees can raise questions without fear of reprisal.   Policies should also explain what conduct will not be tolerated.
  • Avoid Making Emotional Decisions:  I am sure my opponent’s emotional state contributed to his bad call.  It’s never a good idea to make personnel decisions when the decision maker is upset or angry.  They assumed the worst and refused to consider the possibility that I made an honest call, even if they disagreed with it.  Take some time to think about the situation and the ramifications of a particular decision.   For example, a company may wish to fight an unemployment claim, but by doing so it likely encourages a former employee to seek legal counsel and other legal recourse.  Sometimes it is wise to take a stand on principle, other times it may not be a good move.
  • Be Careful Not To Retaliate:  It is human nature to retaliate, as evidenced by my opponent’s service call.   Employees who take action against co-workers who accuse them of wrongdoing can create liability.  Retaliation in the workplace can be costly.   Employers should take proactive steps to avoid retaliation claims.  Review harassment/discrimination policies to ensure that they expressly prohibit retaliation.  Discuss retaliation in any EEO training sessions. Make sure that any discipline issued to an employee who has lodged a complaint about discrimination is justified and can be supported.

“Winning Ugly” is about figuring out how to win even when you’re not your best.  It is not, however, about winning at all costs. That is simply ugly.