Monthly Archives: March 2009

Tapping the Power Inside


Can you capture the character of adversity and the power of the mind over the physical body in your sports photos.  Conventional wisdom tells us that character is built through adversity. When faced with life or death, people tend to quickly discover either their worst or their best traits. Sports allows a less drastic means of finding out whether we are winners or whiners. Better yet—it provides us continuous opportunities to change from one to the other. One-on-one with that alarm clock demanding we get up and go work out, we can either roll over and pretend not to hear it, or get up and claim a small victory. Having turned that small victory into that extra quarter mile today, we arrive at work or school smiling and a little fitter, a little stronger, a little more confident in our own power to control and change our lives—all by ourselves!

Any success in sports comes down in large measure to the self-discipline of the individual. That does not mean just sticking to a workout program, or working hard to improve game skills. Establishing a routine can build life-long habits of eating better and exercising; children who must get themselves up to work out before school, or get from Point A to Point B in time for the practice or game, learn responsibility as well. Disappointing the whole team because you were late is a powerful lesson in consequences, one that will stick even longer because it was self-taught. Self-discipline also encompasses learning to let teammates work in their own way, even if you don’t agree with it; or refraining from going out of your assigned zone to chase the ball. How many times have we seen a point lost because a zealous player interfered with someone who was actually getting the job done? Sticking to the job is the mark of the professional; it can be learned in fifth grade hockey as easily as at your first paid employment.

The relationship between success at sports and success in life has long been proven. The notion that sports and academics are somehow for separate “types” of people is a stereotype that puts up artificial social barriers. All children have the urge to run and play, yet when some start to display superior running, jumping, or throwing abilities, others may want to hang back, sparing themselves the humiliation of losing. Or, just as damaging, they tell themselves they’re above all that silliness; that sports, and those other kids who focus their energies on making baskets instead of grades, are a waste of their time. Of course, the sports-minded kids think the “brains” are snooty, and both sides miss the mark.

Any coach can tell you that half the victory is achieved in the mind; races are as much about strategy as about pure athletic effort. “Work smarter, not harder,” applies equally to the playing field as to the work place. That toned body is important, but being able to spot the pattern in an opponent’s game might give your bookworm an edge over a fitter or more naturally talented player. The sheer diversity of champions should teach us all that victory is not as much about native ability as it is about determination.

Consider Olympic gold medal wrestler Rulon Gardner. The youngest of nine children, he continually lost at games and wrestling matches to his older brothers. "In high school, I didn’t get the chance to wrestle varsity until my senior year because I had an older brother who was better than me,” he says. He was told he wasn’t good enough to wrestle at the international level. He was gently discouraged from college because it was thought he wouldn’t make it through. He did, in fact, graduate from college. Though wrestling against more talented opponents, his determination got him onto the United States wrestling squad. His dedication to fitness training left his “better” adversaries panting and defeated. When told he would face a world champion who had not lost a match in 13 years, Rulon studied every detail of his opponent’s career—and produced the “Miracle on the Mat” at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. No one thought he could win. No one except Rulon, who simply refused to give up.  Is he extraordinary? Perhaps. But sports gave him a venue to prove himself to be more than what people assumed he was.

Understanding this character and emotion that is created with sports will encourage you to take close ups of athletes faces.  There are moments during half-time, at the end of competitions or lulls in the action or even during the action where you will want to zoom in just on the athletes face to capture that imagery.  These will become some of your most beloved and remembered sports photos.

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.