The Real Winners and Losers

So. Does doing something “worth remembering” and “worth photographing” mean that children have to strive to be Michael Phelps in order to benefit from sports or be judged a “winner?” Of course not. While it is true that one of the most powerful benefits of sports is learning to meet goals—the goals might surprise you. In the words of six-time Ironman Triathlon world champion Dave Scott, “If you set a goal for yourself and are able to achieve it, you have won your race. Your goal can be to come in first, to improve your performance, or just finish the race—it’s up to you.” In other words, a “winner” in sports isn’t necessarily the one who crosses the finish line first, the one who kicks the winning goal, the one who puts the arrow closest to the center of the target. It is the person who set a goal and met it, one of the most valuable life lessons we can ever learn.

However, this is the wisdom of the adult. Children disappointed that they did not win the prize despite their best efforts need the natural give and take of competition to learn that losing is not the end of the world. The first thing children on the playground learn (or should be allowed to learn) is that not everybody wins. Somebody is going to cross the finish line first. The difference between playground races and sporting races is the training, the discipline, and the understanding that if you lose today, there’s always tomorrow. Those who finish behind the winner can either pout about it, or be encouraged to adopt the pithy philosophy of Jan McKeithen, old-time NFL football coach: “If you can’t win, make the one ahead of you break the record.” In other words, push yourself, and you will bring everyone else up with you.

In every sport, in every competition, there are winners, losers, and sportsmen (and women). Even in today’s culture of equating gold medals with heroism, a “sportsman” is universally admired, though “winners” sometimes are not. A recent headline highlights the power of sport to show children “the big picture,” the one that goes above and beyond winning. A Texas girls’ high school basketball team bulldozed their opponents, 100-0. The referees didn’t stop it. The coaches didn’t stop it. The girls didn’t stop it. The fans were the ones who objected, while the “losing” team came off the winners in everyone’s eyes. They hung in, playing their best, despite the unevenness of the score and the certain knowledge that they were outmatched. They lost with grace, while the “winners” ended up forfeiting the game, their coach, and their self-esteem in the backlash.

In stark contrast, a delegation leader for the People to People Sports Ambassador Program recalled a memorable baseball matchup in Australia between her American team and a group of Aboriginal students who had never even seen a baseball game before. The American players looked at each other, called timeout, and proceeded to give their opponents a hurried clinic in the basics of the game. Then they traded coaches with the Aborigines. Then the American team, on their own, started handicapping themselves, holding themselves on base, coaching the opposing players, doing everything they could to make sure it wasn’t a blowout. “My son, who plays on a touring team at home, said he had never had so much fun playing baseball,” the leader said. “It reminded him what it was all about.”   Imagine having the photos that captured that emotion and love of playing and helping others.

Such stories remind us that by the very nature of sports, there will be disappointments as well as triumphs. “Loser” has somehow gained a disdainful aura, as if there could be winners without losers, as if losing doesn’t make us try that much harder, dig that much deeper to find out what’s inside. Without the experience of losing, we can never understand just how good winning feels. Easy victories are meaningless; the hard-fought championship, the race you win by a nose, the team that comes from behind—these are the things we remember, the opportunities to discover the real person inside. There is no greater personal thrill than winning honestly over a worthy opponent, but when simply winning becomes the goal, you end up with that girls’ basketball team. When sportsmanship remains firmly in focus, you end up with a group of thirteen-year-olds halfway around the world from home, teaching new friends how to play a great game.

More importantly, you end up with children who remember that it was a game in the first place. You know—fun.

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