Friday, April 25, 2008

Values for Life in Sport

Last week I was to speak at a fund-raising event for a local sport club and sharing the program with me were two professional athletes. One is a now retired baseball pitcher who played for twelve years in the Major Leagues. The other is presently playing professional fast-pitch softball in both the USA and Australia.

As the program moved along I took notes on their talks and the answers to questions of these two outstanding people. Below are some of the items from their talks about the important things they have learned from sport at the highest level.
· Relationships are most important – they both value their friendships with teammates, road trip roommates, coaches, support staff and even opponents.
· Integrity – their values for sport, for family and for their faith guided their daily decisions in all of life.
· Competition – this is what makes them go. They can’t wait to get to game day and to compete. They are wired for sport in the truest sense.
· Privilege – they each understand the tremendous privilege that is theirs and the accompanying responsibilities of being a professional athlete.

They have both forged a wonderful life from the sports in which they have invested countless hours of practice, miles of running, and years of dreaming. Play your heart out, dream as greatly as you can, invest deeply in your sport and enjoy the benefits of honorable competition.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I Hate Losing!

There is nothing to rival the emotional pain, grief and deep feelings of inadequacy which come with losing. If you’re a competitor, you know these feelings and you do all you can to avoid them.

I remember crying on the way to the family car after losing little league baseball games and going 0 for 4 at the plate. I remember feeling, “I’m just not good enough,” as I would lie on my bed replaying each pitch from a fast pitch softball game. I remember the knot in my stomach while receiving a second place wrestling trophy and comparing it with the first place winner’s trophy. I remember, just weeks ago, the painful realization that we were just a couple of plays away from the NCAA Division I Football Subdivision Playoffs National Championship Game, but came up short.

Many of us are driven by these feelings and they help us perform more highly. More than the exhilaration of winning, we work incessantly to keep the gnawing pains of loss at bay. Many more simply quit competing because they can’t handle the grief of losing. Rather than endure the occasional pain, these avoid it by not competing at all. Sadly, they forfeit all the benefits of competition in the process.

So how do we deal with these feelings? I remember thinking prior to one college football season that I, as their chaplain, would not get so emotionally involved and not suffer the grief which came with our frequent losses. I could not do it. When I spent time with the coaches and players, I was connected with their hearts and found myself caring deeply about the team’s success and their individual development. I determined that the risk was worth it. I would risk the pain of loss to enjoy the thrill of winning, no matter how rare.

The choice is yours. You may withdraw and thus avoid the feelings that accompany losing, but you’ll also forfeit the joy of winning. You may stay in the game and disengage emotionally, but in doing so you’ll be terribly incomplete. You can also take the risk to care deeply about your team and each one involved. You can share both the wins and the losses. You can feel the grief of the last second loss and the satisfaction of winning championships. Such feelings are the stuff of life. Feel them at the depth of your soul and experience the best part of sport.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why is Winning so Important?

I recently watched a Division I Women’s Basketball game from the visiting team’s bench in the gym of their strongest conference rival. This game and the brief moments after the game were a vivid reminder of why winning is so important.

This season had been one of great frustration, loss and division for our team. We entered the game near the bottom of the conference and the team we were to play was tied for first in the conference. (They eventually won the regular season and post-season conference tournament championships.) The whole game was an uphill battle, but our team had a short lead at half-time. In the second half we played very well and one could feel the momentum growing as three players made big shots and defensive plays.

This swing of momentum put down all the feelings of frustration, division, jealousy, bitterness and more as the whole team was focused on the win which was within their grasp. The team was unified, at least for the final twenty minutes of the game and we won a huge road victory.

As the players ran from the floor with smiling faces, excited voices and victorious gestures, one would never know the true nature of the team’s past three months. In the locker room, the celebration continued with the coaching staff congratulating players, affirming the way they played and smiling at their achievement. A couple of players commented in the hall shortly thereafter about how much fun the game is when we win.

This is why winning is so important. When we win, the selfish nature of people is more easily kept in check and it’s much easier to selflessly seek the best for our team and for each teammate. When we lose, it’s infinitely easier to self-protect, to shift blame and to “look out for number one.” It requires much more self-control to love our teammates and coaches when we’re struggling to succeed.

Play your heart out. Pursue wins strongly, because when you win the game pays you back for all the hours of hard work, the miles of running and the years of training you’ve invested. You experience the best of sport when you strongly compete for victory.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Injury and Isolation

I was watching a college football practice recently and saw a player pull up with a pulled hamstring. I watched as he limped toward the sideline, but collapse before getting past the numbers. He crumpled to the ground as the trainer reached him. I watched as his position coach moved the other players and their drill ten yards up the field and continued the practice. It was like nothing happened to most of them, but to the injured player time stood still.

I stood with him as he watched his team continued practice, as others ran the drills he suddenly could not and I observed the desperate loneliness he was feeling, just twenty yards from everything normal. He stood there with ice on his leg watching other players vie for the position which was his just five minutes ago. He was dying inside and his teammates wouldn’t even look that direction. They were each denying their own frailty.

I believe there are no lonelier places for a competitor than the sideline and the training room. If our body has let us down due to injury or illness we’re suddenly cut off from the activities which feed our souls. We stand and imagine how we would make the play which our teammate just failed to make. We grieve losses without the ability to prevent them. We hollowly celebrate victories without the satisfaction of having contributed to them.

When you encounter injury or illness, be aware that isolation and loneliness, twin thieves of joy, await your arrival on the sideline or the training room. When your teammates become injured, be near them and chase the pain of isolation away with your assurance of loyalty and support.