I can’t remember winning. It’s not CTE, or some sort of post-concussive disease. I can vividly remember the smell of the locker room, the heat of the field, sweat dripping off my pinky during a steamy practice in late July. I just can’t remember the wins.
Which leads to the question: Is the glory of winning worth the pain of defeat?
Maybe an answer can be found in my amnesia. Why is it that the wins have seemed to slip from memory while the losses remain excruciatingly clear?
A lot of it has to do with how an athlete is trained to think, how a coach chooses his words after a championship victory or a devastating loss. Selflessness is an unwritten rule of sportsmanship, of coaching, and of leaders everywhere.
Maybe coach-speak—playing down the wins, saying something like, “We were really lucky tonight. All the credit goes to my team”—is to blame for the imbalance in my memory.
Moreover, listen to a wise coach after a defeat, and you’re liable to hear: “I didn’t have our team prepared. I take full responsibility for this loss.” In other words, the coach (the quarterback, pitcher, point guard, or “star” player) has been trained to take full responsibility. And that is noble, that is strong, but it also leads to a painful existence, especially if you’re going to make a career out of winning and losing.
Coaches and players are trained to take the losses hard and move on from the victories fast: If one wishes to achieve true greatness—that is the only way. Case in point: Nick Saban, arguably the greatest college football coach of all time. Saban employs the “24-hour rule.” In short, he gives his program 24 hours to relax after a game, and then it’s “back to the grind.”
But how long does Coach Saban chew on a loss? When Clemson dethroned the Tide a few years back, did Saban stick to his rule? I doubt it. That’s not what the great ones do. The great ones pore over the details of their losses, they dissect every play, every mistake, expose the hard truth, and get better because of it.
I’d be willing to bet, if you were to ask Coach Saban about his memory, he and I’d have a lot in common. The victorious memories would pale in comparison to the remembered agony of defeat.
Sounds painful, doesn’t it?
I once endured a completely winless season. I led fifty boys and five coaches—a whole community—through ten straight games, loss after loss. I can remember standing in the kitchen one Sunday morning, fearing the coming week, the impending game. I was talking to my wife. She asked me what I thought about our next opponent. I told her I didn’t think we could win, and then I started to cry.
I’ll never forget it. Those tears are seared into my memory. I was twenty-six and carried the weight of a high school football program on my back. I wasn’t ready (you couldn’t have told me that at the time). But then my wife took me by the waist, held me tight, and said, “You can’t let them know.”
And she was right. I couldn’t let the boys or the coaches, or anyone in town see my doubt, my tears. The trick to football, to sport—the daily grind of life—is that you have to believe. You have to keep going.
As President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who at best knows the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst—if he fails—at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So may you enter the arena, may you wager the pain of defeat, even if the joy of winning is fleeting, because in the end it’s not the wins or the losses that define you—it’s whether or not you played the game.
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