But what happens when we lose?
This weekend marked the end of my son’s Pop Warner football season. His middle-weight team, the Raiders, ended with a perfect season: 0-9. Yep, no wins—not even any ties.
The season began in a hurricane complete with gusting wind and driving rain. (Foreshadowing, perhaps?) The inaugural game started with a Raiders’ kickoff to their opponents who returned it for a touchdown. On paper the season didn’t get much better.
The first few games were tough. Our team couldn’t match up to their opponents as they got pushed up and down the field. Everyone was frustrated and disappointed—the coaches, the players and the parents. Often kids left the field with tears in their eyes.
My son, who hates to lose, was beside himself. He looked for blame everywhere. The referees, players on the other team, his own teammates. Everywhere but in himself. Last season his coach’s motto was “Win with grace, lose with dignity.” Their winning record made it a pretty easy motto to live by.
There’s no doubt about it, losing stinks. But poor sportsmanship reeks. As parents, Dan and I knew it was time to teach our son the "losing with dignity" part of the motto. I won’t lie and say one pep talk made it all better. It was a season-long lesson we continue to give. (Don't we all need to revisit this from time?)
This season I think we all held out hope the Raiders would stage a Bad News Bears-style comeback. When losing seemed to be our fate it would have been easy for the parents and coaches to spiral into the shameful behavior we’ve all seen, and wished we hadn’t. In fact, just the opposite happened.
Somewhere around the fifth game, when you’d expect the griping to crescendo, the cheering increased. Coaches and parents chose to celebrate and encourage the small victories: a good tackle; a first down; a blocked pass. If the team recovered a fumble it was like they scored a touchdown.
By the last game of the season the Raiders’ improvement was noticeable even to my inexperienced eye. They executed plays, completed passes and held blocks. They even scored touchdowns!
Even though a late fourth quarter touchdown by the opposing team put winning out of reach, those kids played their hearts out. With minutes left in the game, the Raiders made one last effort toward the end zone. Their drive got them inside the ten-yard line. Time allowed for one last play.
The center snapped the ball. The quarterback looked into the end zone. He found his man. He threw the ball. A hushed silence fell on the sidelines. The parents and coaches watched the football sail into the end zone, as if in slow motion…right into the arms of a receiver.
Touchdown! Game over. Season over.
Those players came off the field as if they’d won the Superbowl (and they hadn’t even won the game)! Sure the year hadn’t unfolded as any of us had hoped, but in the post-game pow-wow, we parents listened to and laughed at the boys’ bantering and razzing. They had battled unsuccessfully, but they made friends, had fun and chose to persevere. The coaches told the boys they were champions in their eyes. Each of us watching knew we’d observed something pretty special: we saw what losing with dignity looks like.
As Vince Lombardi said, "The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall." Long after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat fade from memory, our character remains. In the end it’s what matters most.
I expect our son will have many years of football ahead of him, but I hope he carries the memories of this season with him in a place of honor. And I pray one day he looks back on it and says, “There. There is where I learned to fight the good fight.”
“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)
ETA: I wrote this article a few days ago and didn't plan it's release for today. But as a few of you have pointed out, it might be a good reminder the day after the election.