Spenser Heaps,
Utah Utes fans watch as their team trail the Arizona State Sun Devils at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Arizona State won the game, 30-10.

SALT LAKE CITY — The anguish was palpable in all three cases.

In three days, I watched three good teams lose, and even from my inconsequential seat on the sideline, they were painful.

In nearly 18 years as a sports writer, I’ve watched a lot of winning and a lot of losing. For some reason, the losing fascinates me.

If you lace up, you’re going to lose.

That’s the nature of competition.

Success isn’t possible without mistakes, without failure and without disappointment. In fact, I’ve come to believe that it’s losing that helps give meaning to victories.

So are there good losses?

Most coaches will tell you no. Any lesson that can be learned can be taught while winning, and some coaches even believe it’s easier to teach, to critique, and to improve while earning victories. Consistent success breeds confidence. It creates a network of trust between players and coaches, and it keeps expectations and aspirations challenging.

But some coaches concede that not only are there good losses, they’ll admit that losing builds a kind of resilience and toughness that isn’t always possible to attain through winning.

Failure is painful.

That pain breaks people down, cracks them open and allows us to reach each other in significant and lasting ways.

Those who acknowledge that unique and valuable lessons come from a loss does not mean they embrace losing. They don’t enjoy it, crave it or wish for it in any way.

The problem with seeing any value in losing is that it is — without question — a dangerous medicine and too much is toxic. A dose of humility can be good for a team, but it can also be laced with self-doubt, finger-pointing and regret.

A loss can galvanize a team in any number of positive ways, and it can unravel even the most talented group of athletes.

A few years ago, I began asking extremely successful people for their most memorable or impactful athletic experience. Nearly all of them offered me a loss.

One man offered his experience of losing a championship game that he and his teammates had not only worked toward for years, but that everyone expected them to earn with ease. He said he remembered everything about the day, the game and the heartbreak. Decades after that loss, he still uses that failure to motivate himself.

As I watched these coaches struggle to find words for what went wrong, I saw the same thing — anguish. Their pain comes from two places — disappointment in themselves and disappointment for their players.

After the Utah football team suffered a humiliating 30-10 loss against Arizona State, coach Kyle Whittingham summed up what every competitor faces after failure.

“We’re down and we have to pick ourselves back up and fight our way out of this, or not,” he said. “That’s the two alternatives right now.”

Which maybe explains one of the most valuable aspects of any loss. There are consequences to failure, and one of the most difficult is the sea of negative emotions that wash over a person — player or coach. It is in that moment, as we are awash in doubt, anger, regret and disappointment, that we make a choice. Do we concede? Or do we keep fighting?

World champion boxer Jack Dempsey once said, “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.”

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And maybe that’s why losing is so intriguing. It is an opportunity to choose something that most people won’t. Because while everyone wants to stand atop a podium or hoist a championship trophy, finding success, especially after setbacks, requires a level of emotional honesty, physical discipline and mental toughness that is much easier discussed than engaged in.

But whether we pick ourselves up and keep fighting, or resign ourselves to failure, we come to appreciate what it takes to succeed in ways we couldn't before we felt the sting of defeat.