The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 17, 2010

When winning doesn’t mean coming in first

“How important is winning?” asked former CCHS teacher and coach Elliott Lilien about high school athletics. He answered his own question in ranking it about sixth or seventh in a list. He was addressing students, teachers, and members of the community in a Ruettgers seminar last week about the “Philosophy and Coaching of Athletics.”

Lilien taught a variety of courses at CCHS including German history, Asian history and Western Civilization. He also coached fencing and tennis at the high school level, and for college teams such as Harvard and Brown. CCHS Visual Arts faculty member Joe Pickman introduced Lilien at the talk and called him a “revered and hilarious presenter.”

Lilien began his talk saying how much he valued sharing and discussing ideas with others – whether at a lecture such as today’s or with colleagues in the History Department in the past. He added that in athletics, he never had that opportunity. He added, “You never got to talk with other coaches about what you were attempting to do.” As a result, he felt coaches never learned from one another. And he found the issues faced – causation, motivation and courage – were common to those faced by teachers and intellectuals at large.

Lilien noted that while he appreciated the scoreboard as a means of evaluating the efficacy of a coach, he found that winning was not the most important thing. He invited the audience to suggest things that should come before winning for the high school athlete. The list grew and grew, and included:


Respect for opponents

Respect for officials

Respect for spectators (defined as “no audible swearing”)

Respect and support of teammates

Staying within conventions of the sport

Coming to the matches

Providing a full effort

After the talk, Lilien conceded that achieving the things on the list were easier to achieve on a “winning team” with one major exception: an undefeated team. As noted during the talk, one loss for an undefeated team would be “a disaster,” and everyone would view the entire season as a failure.

Taking a closer look at winning

True to his Socratic approach, Lilien asked his audience of about 30 – including many current faculty members – if losing builds character? Math teacher Peter Atlas said that he felt it “hones interpersonal skills.” Lilien countered that he felt it showed the character “you’ve got already;” otherwise he noted that players of losing teams “would have the best character” at an entire school.

About winning and losing, Lilien concluded that he felt that trying to win was the most important factor in order to fully appreciate an activity. And, if one should lose, it’s natural to feel bad – “I would say about five minutes” – but then a coach should move on to the next thing.

“I found as a coach, the best thing was to coach a bad team getting better,” said Lilien. He recalled a team that had gone 2 and12 the previous season, and then started to win. He recalled that everyone was happy.

Lilien noted that high school athletics in the U.S. differs greatly from other countries. He related that in most other countries, sports programs don’t occur within high schools because “academics undermines athletics.” He talked about the tendency for other countries to have club sports instead.

In the U.S., as sports do exist at high schools, he encouraged athletes to learn about other teams and to attend other events. He said that just as it benefits teachers in other departments to know what other departments are doing, it benefits athletes as well. And he called on superintendents and principals to attend athletic events. He called the “shared event” the best event, and the importance of a “common feeling of togetherness.”

Based on attendance of Lilien’s events (his recent lectures on Hitler at the Carlisle Public Library were filled to capacity), this former teacher understands how to bring a community together. ∆

© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito