I don’t know why there is so much shame about losers in our culture. We are trained to want to win from the earliest age and all the thousands of hours of sports coverage that we watch throughout our lives centers on the winning. Even when the win is gotten by millimeters or milliseconds, the loser is out of our focus in an instant. This is a tragic misinterpretation because the truth of the experience- in training and competing between winners and losers is more similar than different. Instead of celebratng the development and the effort required by all the competitors, we keep our eyes trained on the one who comes up on top.
Largely, this is a misleading and fruitless focus for our collective attention because what matters more than the moments of fleeting glory accompanying the win is the courage to play. If we could re-focus our attention on the beauty and spontaneous interaction which makes the game, we might come to value the strength of character that every athlete brings to the game. It is in fact, the discipline, vision and devotion to wanting to play that makes winning meaningful. But it also makes losing meaningful. And in the grand scheme of things, when you average out all the players from all the games that get played every single day on this planet, most people get to lose at least as often as they get to win.
Some seasons players and teams don’t find a balance in the win/ loss column and everything seems to go just one way. Repeated wins can make you complacent, cocky and so sure of your success that you lose touch with the magic of what it means to play. Some NBA stars are so ungracious in their winning ways that their success feels hard to celebrate. Many become as maligned in personhood that they may have been revered on the court. They become a caricature of themselves. All that winning put to no good use but in creating an ego that is too large to fit in even a 7-foot tall frame.
Repeated losses are even more challenging. Learning to hold onto yourself, staying dedicated to your work ethic and staying with your love of the game can become more challenging than the game itself. I have witnessed the dejection and shame that repeated losing can wreak on a young soul more than once in my own home. Losing gets to be an insidious habit that eats away at your belief in your own ability to perform. Teams actually forget how to win. Recent Olympic coverage only showed fleeting glimpses of the faces of the competitors who were fast enough to be in the finalist pool but not fast enough to be the winner. They had worked with the same intensity and devotion as the winners. Their efforts were equal.
Some of my friends in the Positive Change club at South Eugene High School are the lead players on our football team. We haven’t won a game all season. The team has lost many players to other more competitive teams and to injuries; and there weren’t enough boys to properly field a team at the very beginning of the season. Many of these players are in for the entire game. The size of the football team is a reflection of an overall school spirit that is sick and withering. It is a painful catch 22 to witness- just when we need to lean in, we pull away. It is a classic chicken and egg scenario- do the losses reduce participation, or does the lack of participation create the losses? Where does one break the cycle?
Learning to lose and not give up is a skill that will shape the life of these young brave football players long after their last high school game ends. Transforming the testosterone-driven power to excel and win into a dignity that doesn’t lose sight of the courage to keep trying will give them a leg up on the winners in ways they can’t imagine right now. As much as we love the winners, I would argue that it is the good losers who are the true heroes in life. They are the winners who will always fight the good fight whether they are assured of victory or not. These are the winners we need most- they show us how to live.