I am no fan of the "non-competitive culture" nonsense being cultivated in many schools today (especially elementary schools). In real life, competition is part of the human experience. In business, politics, sports or whatever, competition exists. In a silly effort to keep from damaging some child's self image, such efforts to shield him/her from the momentary pain of losing, actually fail to instill character. Setbacks, losses, the pain of not being the best or the first, is real life. How can a child learn to deal with that, to manage the emotions those moments engender, if they never feel the pain? I am opposed to giving winners and losers the same trophy. "Participation" trophies, so called, are anathema to me. The kid or team who wins gets the biggest trophy. Period. That's the way it is in real life and the sooner they learn it the better.
Having said that, the kid who gets the biggest trophy may not learn the biggest lesson. If they win too much, too often, too easily they may never learn it. I know the parents who take the losing child home have a difficult job to do. They have to manage that painful moment, encourage their child to try again harder, and reassure them they are loved irrespective of performance. However, their teaching task is not nearly so daunting as the parents of the constant winner.
Winning easily and consistently can translate inside a child's psyche to many really dangerous life views, such as:
- "I will ALWAYS win."
- "Winning is everything in life."
- "I have no personal value apart from winning."
- "If someone loses to me they should meekly accept it as their role in life but if I lose to them, I deserve to act badly."
Athletics is a prime arena (but not the only one) in which this character challenge can so easily and frequently rear its very, very ugly head. From the moment a little leaguer jacks his first home run out of the park, he is coddled. He is special. He is different. The rules that apply to lesser mortals have no claim on him. He is swaddled with constant praise, protected from punishment and deferred to by his elders and he knows it. None of that is lost on him. He is different. A star. A winner. Eventually that thought, that inner self-paradigm devolves into a more squalid version; he deserves to win.
The real loss in this is character development. Emotionally stunted, he may never learn that in real life, one occasionally loses. Finally when a loss, a big one, a whopper of a loss comes along, because he was not taught how to handle losing in junior high, he makes a fool of himself on a grand scale. That is not entirely his fault. Character does not come naturally to anyone. It must be taught.
Parents and coaches and teachers of the ultra-talented have a peculiar burden. They must seize upon every loss as a golden opportunity. Of course, one never hopes for a child to lose. At least, one seldom hopes it. When the rare losses come, they must be exploited for all they are worth. Winning will be their most consistent life experience. Teaching them to win graciously will also be difficult but there will be many opportunities to work at it. Teaching them to lose graciously will be far more challenging because the opportunities to teach it will come less frequently. They are winners. You can tell it almost from the cradle. What they need, actually need in order to get ready for real life, are some setbacks. They need to go through tough places. They need losses, heart-breaking losses.
I winced watching young Cam Newton's unsportsmanlike display at his post-Super Bowl press conference. He was sullen and incommunicative, radiating anger and self-pity. Spitting monosyllabic answers at reporters until he stormed out of the room, Newton looked like what he was: an immature young athlete in pain at having lost embarrassingly on a world wide stage. I knew immediately. He hadn't had enough practice at losing.
It was obvious that he hated that moment, that bitter feeling of losing. His team did not lose on a fluke. No one threw some unlikely Hail Mary pass in the last split second to capture a game that should have been theirs. No sir. They got whipped the whole way. Physically and mentally, Newton and his team were manhandled by a better team. They lost. Period. They got beaten. Period.
I said all that as harshly as I know how. I wrote it that way deliberately. I want it to sound hard because losing is a hard thing. OK. So what if it's hard and painful and unpleasant to lose in front of millions of viewers? OK. It is part of real life, and the soul too fragile to handle it gracefully needs to lose more; not less.
Vince Lombardi is credited with saying, " Winning is not everything. It's the only thing." Though it was not original with Lombardi, it became his signature quote. The only problem is, it's not a great quote which deserves to be re-quoted and celebrated and painted onto locker room walls. It's an ugly, sad quote that has marred the inner selves of hosts of young athletes for decades.
When compared to life skills, to decency and character and mercy and justice, winning a ball game is not the only thing. It is hardly anything at all. I say play hard. Give it everything you've got. Play to win or don't play. When you do win, accept the applause modestly and share the glory with your teammates. Speak well of the team you've beaten. Give them their due, and more than their due. Be merciful and gracious to them because they have lost and they are hurting.
More important than being gracious and humble in victory is to show character in defeat. Congratulate the winners and mean it. Tell them what a great game they played. Keep your perspective. Remember, you lost a ball game. A GAME! You have not lost an apocalyptic war with the evil empire. You will not see your family being sold into slavery and nation spoiled by Visigoths. It was a GAME. You are still who you are. You are not the game you lost. You are not a loser because you lost on the field, but you may never be a winner unless you learn to handle losing.