“It is not up to me whether I win or lose. Ultimately, this might not be my day. And it is that philosophy towards sports, something that I really truly live by. I am emotional. I want to win. I am hungry. I am a competitor. I have that fire. But deep down, I truly enjoy the art of competing so much more than the result.”
Is that statement the sentiment of a winner or a loser?
Some might read it as an attitude from a champion who understands the essence of sport. Others might see it as an excuse for losing.
In fact, it was uttered by U.S. ice skater Apolo Ohno, the most successful United States winter Olympian in history (eight medals). And one of my all-time favorite athletes.
I thought about Ohno’s quote the other day after Selma High’s football season ended in the CIF Central Section quarterfinals.
Ironically, the Bears ended their season in an identical manner as they did the 2016 season — a missed two-point PAT to close out a one-point defeat.
That 2016 team was terrific — undefeated CIF champion before its heartbreaking loss in the Southern California championship game. This season’s team was good, but fell short of being terrific.
How do you move on from arguably the best-ever athletic school year in school history — state championship in girls wrestling, Section titles in football, boys basketball, boys wrestling and softball?
We now know that the football Bears will not defend their Division IV title. The fates of wrestling, basketball and softball have yet to be determined.
And other teams could contend for CIF titles. (In the past few years baseball, girls water polo and boys and girls tennis have prevailed as Valley champions. And girls basketball played in two Section titles games.)
But what about those teams and individuals who don’t become champions. How do we look at them?
We’ve all heard the mantras from overzealous parents and coaches: “Second place is first loser.” Or “Those who say winning isn’t everything must have just lost.”
The polar opposite is those feel-good types who claim that effort is the most important thing, so everyone gets a trophy.
Reality is somewhere in between. Yes, effort and improvement are important, win or lose. But as Vince Lombardi once said, “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, why do they keep score?”
And the ultimate in realism comes in this sentiment from former NFL coach Bill Parcells: “You are what your record says you are.”
But does it matter how you compile that record? Personally, I like this attitude from baseball manager and executive Joe Torre: “Competing at the highest level is not about winning. It’s about preparation, courage, understanding and nurturing your people — and heart. Winning is the result.”
That means we work hard, so that when we take the field, court, track, floor or pitch, we are prepared to win. To beat the other guys. If that is not your goal, you’re just playing with a ball.
But maybe sometimes that is enough. My group of Pickleball Geezers keeps score and play to win. But we also are there for exercise, recreation and social interaction. Winning is secondary to those other goals.
About a dozen years ago, while covering the Ryder Cup golf tournament, I had a conversation with a British sportswriter about golf in his country.
He told me that sometimes his foursome would show up at the course and one of the guys would ask, “Are we playing pencil and scorecard golf today?” The message was clear: Sometimes you don’t want to keep score, you just want to hit the ball around. Sorry, Vince.
So as we leave the fall sports behind and embrace our Bears athletes in basketball, soccer and wrestling, let’s remember that winning makes us feel good, but competition makes us strong.
After all, these are teenaged students we’re talking about. And there are great life lessons to be learned from competing for a goal.
We have some championship-caliber teams playing this winter and spring. So let’s cheer them and support their programs. And, win or lose, offer congratulations and encouragement.
And remember these words from former Olympic track and field gold medalist Wilma Rudolph:
“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion some day.”