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Dec, 2023

The Transformative Power of Sports Part II: The Art of Losing (and how to win while doing it)

As we learned in Part I, sports are physical performances that satisfy our evolutionary need to show human progress.   But competition has its own definitions. 

In general, we know it when we see it.  Two teams facing off… who can throw a rock the farthest…  a battle of intellects in a quiz game… two people vying for the job or a promotion… or a mutual love interest.  But, since we use competition as a barometer for species-wide and personal survival skills, we can also define the terms however we like—and we often do: “competition,” “opponents,” and “winning,” are all extremely flexible terms—and they can mean different things to different people.  You may not even know you’re in a competition when you’re at a standstill on the freeway and a lady cuts in front of you to gain an extra 20 feet (thumbs up lady, you’re the winner).   Or, desperately trying to find the shortest line at the grocery store.  Or grabbing the last gotta-have-it-toy on Black Friday.  People do these things because, to them, it feels like winning.  It's no less arbitrary than sport—though the difference is that in sports, your opponent knows they are the opponent, and the rules are more defined through a (likely) more evolved ethos. 

We can each personally define competition, and definitions of competition can also be commonly agreed upon.   This duality is what makes competition, and sport, a necessary part of both our personal and species-wide growth.  When commonly agreed upon, competition rules are either spoken, written, or based on accepted social values.  The outcome is simple to understand: if you are better than your opponent, you are the winner.  If you are not better than your opponent, you are the loser.   There are quite a few athletes and sports fans that believe this and only this.  Yet, THE greatest failure of sports is the belief that competition is a zero-sum game—that it’s black and white, right and wrong, on and off; win or lose. Based on the definition of sports (physical performances that satisfy our evolutionary need to show human progress) and the outcome of competition (the development of personal and species-wide survival skills), the score literally cannot be the only metric that matters.  Not by a long shot.

When my son was six, we attended local youth fun runs.  They were simple contests, with ¼ mile, ½ mile, and 1-mile runs. Each race started with some stretching, some safety pointers, and a quick statement or two about hydration or the joy of running. Then it was on your mark, get set, GO, and they off.  The winners were applauded, and all finishers were celebrated equally.  The finish line would usually yield a popsicle for all those that crossed it.  As a parent, it was a fantastic weekly event – it lasted no more than 20 minutes and the smiles of all the kids along with their senses of accomplishment were universally appreciated. 

The leaf-stomper in action


One could find no better cost/benefit of parenting-time-spent versus child-reward.  Not to mention, the kids got tired out and had a better chance of a drama-free bedtime.  At one of these runs, my son decides to run the half mile for the first time.  These are all “out-and-back” races on a bike path.   The race starts and they all run off down the path and around a gentle corner out of sight.  Within minutes, we see all the kids on their way back.  My son is nowhere to be found.  The leaders finish, along with most of the rest of the kids.  A kid with a cast on his leg is limping back to the finish line, likely the final finisher and still my son isn’t visible.  As I began to worry, as most parents would, I start wandering down the route.  I finally see him off in the distance, weaving back and forth on the path, stopping and going, stopping and going.  I’m thinking, what in the hell is he doing? By the time he makes it to the finish line he finishes DFL and everyone kindly applauds.  As they were getting ready for the next race, I looked at him and saw that he was beaming from ear to ear.  I asked him, “why were you weaving back and forth and not running?”  He replies with a big grin on his popsicle-stained face, “I wanted to stomp on every leaf on the path and I think I got them all!”  “Yes, buddy, you likely did,” was all I could muster as a reply.  He was clearly very happy with himself, content that he accomplished something that HE had put his mind to that was also witnessed by his proud family. No judges, no clock, no tests, no external expectations. In sport, it’s wonderful if you break records and win medals. But ultimately, your records will be broken, and medals will get stuffed in sock drawers (yes, even Olympic medals, as some of my Olympian friends will attest).


This may have been the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in sports.  It doesn’t matter what you do, or that you do it to someone else’s expectations.  What matters is that you try, and that you do what you set out to do to meet or exceed your own expectations.  True joy and true passion manifests from a willingness to personally accomplish something, no matter what it is.  Each goal is a steppingstone to the next—a foundational step-up that re-establishes and defines one’s whole self from which to build confidence through the next great accomplishment.    The true measurement of athletic accomplishment is if YOU are satisfied with your effort. Even if it is just about running and stomping leaves.



My son now runs varsity cross-country, where he holds his own in our region.  There’s a joy and confidence that he brings to competing, even if he knows he'll “lose.”  His finish time, performance on a particular course, how he felt while running, and all the strategy that shakes out on a team-based race in the woods are all different metrics for his personal human performance.  The value of these metrics far outweigh the result of whether he "won" or "lost." He might be a top 25 runner in our region depending on the day, but it doesn’t matter.  I still see him running with that same popsicle-stained grin. 

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