Above all, I have one hope.
Well, I have a lot of hopes for the fifth-grade basketball team I am coaching. But as the boys prepare for their season, there is perhaps one wish that rises above the others.
I hope they lose.
Oh, it’s not that I want them to lose all their games during the upcoming Catholic Youth Organization season. It’s not that I even want them to lose most of them. They have been working hard in practice, they’re a great group of kids, they deserve to have some success on the court.
It’s just that I think losing can be good for you at times. It’s just that I think there are lessons in losing that cannot be gleaned from winning.
That’s something that is all too often lost these days. We live in a society that embraces mantras such as, “Second place is really first loser.” And “Nobody remembers who finished second.” And “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying.”
We live in a society that tends to ignore the value of trying and losing and then trying again. As Muhammad Ali once said, “We all have to take defeats in life.”
Yet while we’re talking about fifth-grade basketball and spouting T-shirt philosophy and quoting a champion boxer, the important part of the message is that it extends to all facets of life. Sports are unique in that they offer resolution at the end of the competition, but they aren’t unique in producing winners and losers.
Politics, business, teaching — most of life’s endeavors are rife with successes and failures. The successes are more fun; the failures can be more instructive. The failures are what lead to improvement and a desire to succeed. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
That’s what I hope our fifth-grade boys learn this season. Well, that and the fact that merely participating doesn’t warrant a trophy, which is another philosophy that seems to be lost these days. As Ashley Merryman wrote awhile back in The New York Times: “The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.”
You see, one of the more annoying traits of youth sports these days is that everybody gets a trophy. Everybody receives a highly disposable trinket that screams, “Hey, thanks for coming! You’re a winner just for showing up!”
And then they grow up and realize the world doesn’t work that way. They grow up and realize that success requires effort, and that there are no participation awards for showing up at college or going to work every day; you have to produce.
Learning to win
Our society has become so intent upon making everybody feel like a winner — and some parents are so intent upon protecting kids from any sort of disappointment — that we are ignoring what it actually means to be a winner. We are forgetting that “winning” isn’t necessarily defined by the scoreboard, but by the effort and the improvement and the ability to do your best when the pressure is on. And we’re forgetting that losing can be crucial to eventually developing those skills.
Increasingly, there are stories about schools doing away with letter grades. Because, goodness knows, we can’t recognize excellence at the risk of possibly hurting some other child’s feelings.
There’s a famous story about how Michael Jordan was cut from the varsity basketball team as a high school sophomore. Never mind the fact that most sophomores don’t make varsity, but that slight is one of the things that fueled the competitiveness that turned Jordan into the greatest player the sport has ever seen.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t have any Michael Jordans on my team this year; I’m pretty darn sure I don’t have any future NBA players. But I am equally certain that they will improve their basketball skills and, more important, they’ll learn a little about themselves and about competition. And losing is an important part of that process.