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How To Win From Losing
In the world of sports there is no more paranoid position than being a hockey goalie. You are, for intents and purposes, a human shield used for target practice. Your job is to stop the angry sting of rubber puck flying at you at more than 100 mph as you try to make sense of the constant swirl of motion in front of your goal.You play on a team, but are essentially alone. You cannot win games, but only lose them.
Little wonder then that hockey goalies tend to be a bit “peculiar”. In my own misspent youth minding the net, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw my mask, glove, stick -- anything that I could get my hands on -- at my poor defensemen, when I was even slightly displeased with their positioning. I would heap a torrent of verbal abuse on them that I would never unleash on my worst enemy. And yet these big, beefy guys, who under different circumstances could snap my neck in two without breaking a sweat, meekly absorbed all of my rants. Such is the power of a hockey goalie.
A few years ago NY Times ran an article talking about what sociologists call “non-normative” traits of being a hockey goalie. There was Bernie Parent, the famed keeper of the Broad Street Bullies, who took a nap with his German Shepard every day. Another NHL goalie compulsively stripped off his uniform between each period to take a shower as an elaborate superstition ritual. My favorite however was Gilles Gratton, who as New York Times writes, “bounced around in the minors in the ’70s before ending his career with the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers. Gratton liked to skate in the nude sometimes, wearing just his goalie mask, and refused to play if the stars did not line up properly. He believed that in a previous life he was an executioner who stoned people to death, and that he was fated to become a goalie — someone on the receiving end of a stoning, so to speak — as punishment.”
Although, goalies rarely if ever score a goal, any hockey player worth his weight will tell you that you can’t win the game without a good one which is what makes the story of Martin Brodeur so interesting. Brodeur was the inimitable netminder of the New Jersey Devils who spent more that 20 years in the league. He is no doubt one of the more talented goalies in NHL history, but what makes Brodeur unique is his ability to recover from losses.
In profile of him by New York Times, the paper wrote,
“Hockey people say that Brodeur’s particular strength is his ability to bounce back from a bad goal or a bad game and not let it gnaw at him. Hockey was locked out for the first half of this season, and during the Devils’ truncated training camp last month, you could see that he hates to be scored on even in practice, rapping his stick or ducking his head in disgust after letting one in. But the cloud passes in an instant, and then he’s bouncing on his skates and looking for more pucks to swat away. Lou Lamoriello, the Devils’ general manager, says, ‘Marty’s mental toughness, his ability to overcome a bad game, is just phenomenal.’ “
The older I get, the more I realize that there is simply no greater skill in life than the ability to recover from adversity. This is doubly so when it comes to financial markets, which like a hockey puck traveling at 150 miles per hour will do their best to knock you off balance every single day.
When we are young we think we are invincible and therefore never give much thought to recovery, assuming that our body and our mind will just snap back. But as we get older and hopefully a bit wiser we begin to pay more respect to the process of recovery. When I was young I had the bad luck of catching six pneumonias before I was twenty years old. The net result was that my lungs were shot and whenever I caught a cold it usually turned into a month long bronchial infection that made New York winters a constant misery.
But I as I got older I began to take my condition more seriously. Instead of trying to “gut it out”, I would drop everything at the first sign of sniffles, get in bed, drink 6 liters of water and try to sleep for 12-14 hours at a time. Doing this, I’ve managed to cut my recovery time from an average of three weeks to just a few days and have had far fewer colds in my 50’s than I did in my 30’s.
When it comes to trading, the ability to recover is far, far, far more important than the ability to win. No matter how hard you try, no matter how good you are, no matter how robust your strategy -- you will lose. And it’s at that point that true success will be determined.
Just like with my colds, I’ve learned over time that recovery from your trading losses depends far less on you being “right” and far more on you being “small”. Smaller trades lead to smaller absolute losses which give you time to assess the markets with a much cooler head. You don’t rush into the same trade, you don’t try to win it all back at once and you don’t carry the burden of your losses for days on end. Like Martin Brodeur, you realize that the darkness passes and tomorrow brings another day of opportunity to go toe to toe with the market.