How We Lose

January 4th, 2012

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues- it is the form of every virtue at the testing point.”  -C.S. Lewis

I can’t get the Stanford kicker, Jordan Williamson, out of my heart.  Watching him struggle to maintain his composure with the game on the line, not once but twice and each time coming up short was for me the most heartbreaking moment of the game.  He missed only two kicks in the whole season and I imagine, of the thousands of footballs that he has kicked in his short life, most all of them were on target. He sobbed at the end of the game, the media blaming the loss of the game on the kicker.

My sons have always played sports competitively and I have watched enough heart-wrenching losses to know that it is never one guy on any team that loses a game.  Even when it looks like that and the goalie misses the save, or the kicker misses the mark, or the shooter misses the basket at the buzzer. It was the whole team and the coach that arrived at that outcome together.

True gem of an athlete that he is, Andrew Luck, the Stanford quarterback who was certainly disappointed by the outcome acknowledged as much himself when he deflected any finger pointing asserting that no one player was to blame for the loss.  “Put yourself in that situation,” Luck said. “Yeah, it’s tough. It’s very tough. I know guys will rally around him. He’s got a very bright future in front of him. The media tends to want a scapegoat or a hero, and that’s just not the case in any football game.”

I have witnessed the emotional process of healing after a disappointing performance up close. The kind of courage that it requires to go on and try again is perhaps more rare and important than the athletic gifts themselves.  Having the guts to play where everyone is watching is heroic in and of itself for a guy who hasn’t yet hit twenty. Even in a big high school game,  messing up feels just about as humiliating. Being able to stay with the discomfort, moving beyond the shame is what separates those who go on to win.

In fact, as I reflect on the most important lessons my boys learned from their extensive competition was this- that at the end of the day,  win or lose, being able to hold onto yourself and stay close to the love of the game that drives you to play is the real win.  This is where playing becomes the freedom to be who one really is. It is why we love to watch games way after we can physically play them, because we are looking for the courage that forms the very basis of the athletic skills we so admire.

Jordan’s coach, who was blasted for trusting his kicker, tried to give him this before he went out there, reminding him- “this is why football is fun.” As his friend and teammate Luck said,  he has a bright future. Especially if he realizes the courage he is made of, something that winning probably wouldn’t have shown him.

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