March 4, 2004

It's Not Whether One Wins or Loses, It's How One Plays

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Anyone who has spent any time truly competing in a sport — or truly competing in anything — has doubtlessly heard dozens of quotes about winning, about how it is the sole definer of success or failure, about how it’s the only thing that matters.

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” In Western culture, and more specifically American culture, this attitude prevails. Everywhere a person looks, from our courtrooms to the boardrooms, from business fields to playing fields, in politics, entertainment, international policy, and sports, our culture tells us, time an time again, winning is the only thing that matters. Winners are the only ones that matter. If you win you matter. You must win to matter. Losers are nothing.

America’s heros win. Michael Jordan, George Washington, Babe Ruth, U.S. Military Soldier. They all win, win it all, triumphing. None of them ever made Dan Marino’s mistake… but more about him later.

Initially, there are two ways to deal with this culture predicated on winning. Some people, many people, choose to be non-competitive sooner or later. They are either easy going or tired. They hear the quotes about winning, and simply dismiss them as unnecessary, blustering words to proclaim triumph over an opponent. Happy with their place in the world (or resigned to the impossibility of changing that place), they ignore the historical place of victory in our most capitalist of cultures.

The other more competitive individuals devour the philosophy of victory, relishing it. They absorb this insatiable desire for fighting, on the field or off, for a conquest; they make it part of their lives, creating a philosophy and a sense of purpose around it. These people must forever move forward, upward, finding new victories to obtain, new people and venues to subdue.

I have no doubt that most of the successful people in America — or almost any other place for that matter — are the competitive ones, the ones always striving to do better, working to improve, constantly toiling to gain the foothold of success, sacrificing as necessary. But for these people, talking about winning is easy. It vindicates them. It elevates them.

But what about the losers? What happens when winning it all becomes impossible, or when winning anything more becomes impossible? What philosophy is there then?

Losing is, sooner or later, almost inevitable. Barring a life charmed in a way few will ever experience, losing comes.

Sometimes it comes in spite of any individual’s effort. My freshman crew coach, Linda Muri, owned three world championships from 13 years of competitive rowing. But in her senior year of college, when she rowed for MIT, she and her team lost every single race in which they competed.

Crew is in many ways a quintessential team sport. With the combination of skill, timing, and power needed to make an eight-man boat go truly fast, every rower needs to be exactly together. A few bad rowers will affect every other person in the boat, throwing off timing, ruining their teammates ability to row with maximum effectiveness, slowing them down. It does not matter how wonderful any individual rower is, if the boat around him is terrible, he will lose.

Football is a similar case. No one player can win a championship. As the New England Patriots and the Ohio State Buckeyes proved in the past two years, the whole is vastly more important than any of its individual parts. Dan Marino was, statistically, the best quarterback in the NFL, ever. But his legacy bears the asterix: “He never one the big one.”

So how should a person deal with losing? He (or she) could take the affore mentioned route and stop competing, satiating himself with his place in life, or he (or she) could strive ever harder against losing, feeling and hating every loss and desiring nothing more than to escape defeat.

I know I have spent whole seasons, and whole semesters, filled with something approaching hatred for the fact that my team always lost, and it felt as if we would always lose, no matter how hard any of us had worked or would work. And almost every example in our culture teaches that nothing ever comes of losers.

But I would like to think there is an alternative to that attitude; I believe there are more than just the two options. It does not come down to giving up or always being unhappy.

I think at certain points, a person has to content himself (or herself) with the lessons losses teach and the knowledge that he is constantly working for more. Take knowledge from the defeats and be happy with using that to work for the success of something greater.

Because we can not all win all the time. For each victory there is a consequent defeat, sometimes despite work, desire, or justice. So we have to be happy with learning and working for more, because that is all we have.

Archived article by Matt James