It was a little past midnight when the topic of moral victories came across the kitchen table of our AirBNB for AVP Austin, amidst the remnants of a sampler 12-pack of Shiner Bock and an assortment of other wonderful Texas beers and a deck of cards.

It wouldn’t have taken an incredibly observant individual to see the frustration on Myles Muagututia’s face. I can’t pretend to quote him exactly, because memory gets a bit blurry in the early morning hours under the subtle influence of fine Texas beer.

His point, though, was this: We didn’t win. But we got better.

He preaches this to his girls at Concordia, where he coaches the beach team with his wife, Tirah. Results are fun but ephemeral. Improvement is less fun, less visible, less of a boasting point for all the wonderful likes on Instagram, especially when you lose, but vital.

On Thursday, our second qualifier of the year, Myles and I were noticeably better at the aspects at which we wanted to improve. The scores couldn’t reflect it any less. Paul Lotman and Gabe Ospina put a thorough thumping on us in the first set of the third round, 21-12. But the symptom of the loss was different than that of our loss in Huntington Beach, to Lev Priima and Kacey Losik.

Against Lev and Kacey, we went up 12-9 in the second and began losing control of the ball. Careless passes. Errant first touches. We didn’t put ourselves in a position to score, and we lost because of it.

So for the next two weeks, that was the focus: Control the first touch. Especially me. When Myles and I dissected our losses, whittled them down to a single common denominator, our success and failure was, most of the time, determined by my passing. Our in-system side out rate was high. Our out-of-system side out rate, predicated, for the most part, by my passing, was low.

For two weeks, we passed. We passed before practice. We passed during water breaks in practice. We passed extra after practice. We got a coach, Jackson Mettechechia, to serve us balls and give us feedback on our passing. We bribed my girlfriend, Delaney Knudsen, with Torchy’s Tacos to serve us the day before the qualifier.

Passing passing passing.

And would you look at that: It worked. The score of our first match is reflection enough. We sided out 100 percent in the first set, against two good servers in TK Kohler and Chris Vaughan, my good friend and snow teammate. We didn’t side out 100 percent in set two but we only had, to my count, two errant passes – both mine, both of which required good serves – and one ace that tagged my sideline.

We won 21-11, 21-12.

It might have been the smoothest match Myles and I have played this year.

I couldn’t have been much more confident heading into our next match, against Lotman and Ospina, and it had nothing to do with Lotman and Ospina and everything to do with how Myles and I were playing. More specifically, with how we were passing. In the previous six months of our partnership, when we passed, we won. It’s a short, simple and accurate story.

Then a funny thing happened, a new wrinkle added to the mix: Myles and I passed well again, well enough that we were in system almost every time we were in serve receive, lest you count the occasions that Lotman and Ospina tagged a line for an ace which, hey, good for them. And we got smoked, 21-12. Lotman had my number the whole match. He blocked angle at the right time. He moved line at the right time. They ran dives this way and that at the right time. It was frustrating because I couldn’t point to the typical symptom – my passing – diagnose the problem, and fix it, or at least put a band-aid on it. It was new. It had been a long time since a blocker had stumped me so thoroughly when I could take any set I wanted, at any tempo, because the passing was there to run whatever play I so chose. And we did try. We ran outsides. We ran backs. We ran up and down and quicks and once tried a fake shoot gone wrong (the score was out of hand, it was an experiment).

Neither of us were too concerned after that first set, either. Lotman and Ospina had served exceptionally well, and it was the best – as roughly everyone in the state of Texas and half of California would tell me afterwards – I had seen Ospina play, and as his partner in San Francisco and Seattle last year, I had seen him play plenty.

Things evened out in the second. I had a better grasp on what Lotman and Ospina were doing, but they still made plays. Myles and I made a few more defensive plays to keep us in it. But still: With the score 14-12 in Lotman and Ospina’s favor, they earned two in a row on me. Two good passes. Two good plays on their part, a block and a dig to transition kill.

It opened up a 16-12 deficit that proved, despite a nice little freeze comeback, too big to surmount.

It was an odd mix of emotions in the player’s box afterwards, significantly different from Huntington. In Huntington, I was flat out despondent. I don’t get super angry when I lose, just really, really sad. Quiet. Introspective. Aggressively self-flagellating. In Austin, I was crushed, yes, because losing sucks and I hate it, loathe it, abhor it with every fiber I have, but I was also, in a way – a tiny, microscopic, hard to find way — satisfied.

Everything we wanted to improve, we improved. I hung onto that tiny lining of positivity with everything I had left.

A week or so prior to Austin, Delaney brought up a concept she had read in a book: What if we could go through life without making the same mistake twice? How efficient would we be? How incredible?

It’s impossible, obviously, but the concept itself is a fascinating one to me. On Thursday, Myles and I didn’t win, didn’t qualify, didn’t go check in at the Crown Plaza with all those other main draw athletes we so badly wanted to be, but we didn’t make the same mistake we did in Huntington.

We got better.

The results didn’t show it, because sometimes they just don’t. That’s kind of how it goes when you’re building something: For the longest time, it doesn’t look like anything, until you put enough pieces in place and it begins to take shape. In life, you could call those building blocks.

In sports, I guess you could call it a moral victory.