Friday, December 17, 1999
Carlisle Comments: Thoughts on Winning
In the recent editorials and letters regarding recreational sports a fragment of an oft-quoted phrase echoed a number of times: "It is not about winning." But the rest of the phrase was left out: "It is how you play the game." I applaud the intent of these writers, but I believe we are missing something when we de-emphasize winning and then, because it becomes irrelevant, forget to teach how to play the game.
Consider this situation in soccer: a player kicks the ball out of bounds while competing for possession and claims that the ball was kicked out by the opposing player. It is not an uncommon move, and the sentiment is that if you can get away with it, why not try? After all, it is the referee's job to decide, and if you can get the ball, even if you do not deserve it, it may help your team win.
This is exactly the kind of behavior we want to teach is wrong: cheating, even in a small way, to win.
The problem with ethical behavior is not that it is hard to teach but that it is hard to do. Sports provide an excellent ground for teaching ethics, but they cannot do it if winning is de-emphasized. Without the goal of winning, there is no challenge to integrity when faced with a chance to take the dishonest tactical advantage because, after all, the game does not "count."
Once during this season, I saw a player on the opposing team correct the referee by insisting that the ball had been out on him and the throw-in belonged to the other team. It was a satisfying moment for everyone who saw it and demonstrated the kind of behavior that should be actively taught and not just admired in astonishment.
If you are not convinced that honesty is worthwhile in an environment where many others will be found playing dishonestly, try this test: ask your favorite players if they could be declared champion without playing a single game, would they choose that over taking a chance on actually playing to win the same honor? Few, if any, players would regard a championship as an honor if it were conferred rather than earned. This is the essence of integrity: an understanding that winning is only important if the game is played, and played honestly.
My point is this: we should not de-emphasize winning in our recreational sports (as it was in the recreational league I coached this past fall). We should accord winning its appropriate level of attention, and those who lose should understand that there is honor in competing honestly and losing. This lesson is more important than ensuring that feelings are not hurt. We as parents and coaches should watch the field and ensure that players focus on "how they play the game," not just in terms of skills and teamwork, which are also important, but in terms of their honesty and integrity in the face of competition and a desire to win. The reality of bad referees and dishonest competitors and honest errors may catch up with them in the long term, but a strong foundation of integrity is what develops the self confidence that makes true leaders.
Sports are valuable because they provide a safe, controlled environment for practicing healthy competition. In my opinion, this means trying to win, but teaching that winning without honor is not victory.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito