It was John Wooden's Pyramid of Success that helped me realize I wasn't defined by winning/losing.
Last night I attended a high school match to support a few kids that I had the pleasure of working with in the sand this summer. This morning, I woke up and saw the following email from one of the players:
"Thank you for coming tonight, I know you weren't there for me but I appreciate you coming. Sorry you didn't see my best game. Hope you had fun."
If I had to guess, I'd say at minimum at least half the times I go to support a kid I watch, after the game they're dejected about one of two things: Either they didn't feel they played well enough, or they feel embarrassed that they didn't get much playing time.
My heart breaks when I see the pressure these kids feel to perform at a certain level, because there's a lot of us that have contributed to those feelings.
It comes from coaches who use winning/losing as a measuring stick of success/failure, instead of "did we compete the right way?"
It comes from parents who simply want what's best for their kids, but due to a lack of proper education they focus on the wrong things when cheering from the stands/interacting with their kids after matches.
It comes from a culture where world-class athletes are glorified for winning one day and criticized for losing the next.
How do these kids stand a chance? Why are we so confused when the pressure affects their performance?
Before I come off as a 'coddler', let's make something clear. I enjoy winning. Nobody likes losing. Our kids are pushed to their limits and we work hard at our program. But every time I have someone raise an eyebrow at me when I say winning doesn't matter to me, I ask two questions, and no one has ever been able to challenge it:
"If two teams go out and compete, and both sides play the right way, doesn't one team still have to lose?"
"If I teach my athletes to focus on giving their best physical/mental effort on every play, doesn't that give them the best chance of winning?"
We complicate things, but it's that simple. Look at the NFL: There isn't a single player in that league that isn't world-class at what they do. The absolute best of the best square off each week, competing in a sport that they've all dedicated their lives to playing.
And at the end of the day, for every team that wins, someone HAS to lose.
We can enjoy winning, but we have to stop putting it on a pedestal and using it as a measuring stick. There are matches kids have won where they didn't give their all against a weaker team. There are matches where kids lose, but they left it all on the floor and they couldn't have given any more.
This has to change, and it falls on all of us.
It falls on the Athletic Directors to be strong in their philosophies, and for them to not budge if parents come to them angry if their son/daughter's team isn't winning, but things are being done the right way.
Coaches, it's up to us to create this culture for our programs. It's up to us to educate the parents and set the expectations. It's also up to us to practice what we preach and act in a manner that reflects everything we're asking of the players.
Parents: Your role is the most important. It starts at home. If you don't know where the bar should be set, don't set it at all. Let your kids play. Make sure they know your love for them is the same regardless of winning or losing. Don't hold them accountable for victory/defeat - hold them accountable for giving their best effort, being a good teammate, and playing the game the right way.
Players, I know you feel a lot of pressure. Remember to have fun. Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. One of my favorite takeaways from the Way of Champions Conference last June was "We cannot control 100% if we win/lose, but we always control 100% the way we compete". Don't worry about winning, focus on competing.
So let's start focusing on what really matters. Let's focus on competing. Let's focus on effort. Let's focus on being a respectful winner and a gracious loser. Let's make sure our kids know what really should matter when they're participating in sports.
After all, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."