“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” –Old sports adage attributed to sportswriter Grantland Rice
I have always believed this old adage. Or wanted to believe that I believed it at least…
I am one of those people who tries not to appear competitive, but secretly really likes to win. I put this down to being a first born – we can nearly always beat our younger siblings at almost everything we play for a number of years so we get used to it – but I’m guessing it’s also part of being a Capricorn, part of being designated “gifted” in elementary school, part of my familial conditioning, etc., etc. In other words, it’s a part of who I am.
Competition gets very interesting once you have kids. I noticed right away that at a certain age (around 5 or 6) my older son got really upset whenever he would lose a game, but he was especially upset when he would lose to me. I struggled with this – should I let him win to give him a (false) sense of confidence or should I beat him fair and square to give him an authentic life experience? After all, it was only natural that I, thirty-one years his elder, should win at most of the games we played.
After watching him win and watching him lose and meditating on it a lot, I finally decided that the best thing was to give him a good run for his money, but ultimately to let him win, at least most of the time. My basis for this decision was simple biology. I was his mother. It was my job to love him, to care for him, to look out for him. Watching me try to destroy him – metaphorically at least – was not only painful, but confusing.
Fast forward to the current baseball season and we are once again experiencing pain and confusion. He and I are not competing against each other this time, but we are struggling, each in our own way and together, around the issues of winning and losing.
O is a very good baseball player. He’s not the best in the league, but he is very good. More importantly, he works hard. When he is out on the field he is paying attention, his head is in the game, and he wants to do his best.
He has had great experiences with baseball so far. Great coaches, great teammates, mostly winning seasons (even when they weren’t officially keeping score), and a real sense of accomplishment no matter the outcome.
This year has been different. From the beginning he could tell that his was not a “winning” team. They didn’t win a single one of their pre-season scrimmages and come the first game of the year, he did not want to play.
I had to harass him to get his uniform on, he protested and procrastinated, cried and complained. It was the tears that got me.
We are in the car on the way to his first game and he is already crying, begging me not to make him go, to let him quit the team. I didn’t know what to do. I froze. I know that feeling well of being stuck in a bad situation and just wanting out, of things not being the way you are used to, the way things are “supposed” to be in your mind, the way you really, really want things to be. Persevering feels like torture and yet, we are also told, “winners never quit and quitters never win.”
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to go through this three days a week for the next eight weeks. Even more, I didn’t want to force my son to. And yet, I didn’t want him to quit playing baseball, the game he loves.
We sat there in the parking lot – him crying, me paralyzed – for more than ten minutes. Finally, I called my husband. What should we do?
M said that O could quit, but that he had to get out of the car and go and tell his coaches why he was quitting. It was the perfect thing to say. O sighed, decided he didn’t want to do that, got out of the car and went to his game.
They lost. They also lost the next one. And the next one. And the next one. Until they had lost so many that no one expected them to win one anymore. I held out hope longest of all. Well into the season I kept telling O that I knew they were going to win one of these days. He’d just look at me and shake his head as if to say, “Mom, she knows nothing about baseball.”
Things did improve. Toward the middle of the season they started losing games by just one point. They seemed to have Mariners fever. They could take a five-run lead in the 2nd and turn it into a loss.
Still, being ahead at all was progress and we tried to focus on that. O vacillated between tears and devastation, anger and resignation post-game. He talked about next season, what team he would be on, what players he wanted on his team, even about not playing baseball at all. This made me sad. Baseball was his sport. Even after a devastating loss he would come home and head right out to the backyard to start throwing balls against the pitch-back or take some batting practice. I wanted him to play again. But I understood why he might not want to.
All season I made sure to be at as many games as I could. I wanted to be there for him when they lost. But more than that, I wanted to be there for the win I just knew was coming.
It was hard. I cheered. I sent positive energy. I prayed for miracles. I asked the Universe to send us a win (I said I thought we deserved it, the Universe apparently did not agree…).
I also descended into areas I don’t like to think about. I started to hope that the opposing team’s pitcher would screw up. I secretly wished their outfielders would drop the ball. I sized up their batters, looking for weak links. And then I checked this behavior in myself and wished for the best and highest outcome for all, even though what I really, really wanted was a win.
Finally, even I gave up.
And that’s when I really started to do some work with this quote. All season long it had been going through my head, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” How were we playing the game? Badly, most of the time. With more strike outs and errors than base hits and good plays, but also with some heart.
The other parents on the bench were hurting too. I could see that. We weren’t the only ones driving home with a crying player who just wanted to forget about the last three hours of his or her life.
But they kept showing up. All of them. Not one kid quit. And I started to feel pride in that. And in the good things that were happening. X caught a fly ball. Y walked instead of striking out. Z made a great play at home. I realized that baseball really is a metaphor for life. It is a living, breathing meditation.
All that really matters, all that you can really control, is the next pitch. Whether you are the batter or the pitcher, the catcher or the center fielder, or just a mom sitting in the stands, baseball is all about the present moment. It’s all about what is happening right now. That’s all that really matters in any game, in all of the games. What is happening right now and what am I going to do about it? And then it’s over and we’re moving on. To the next one. The next pitch. The next game. The next moment.
And I swear, the parents on the bench, we all got that. And we started cheering for everything. For a called strike. For a single out that could have been a double play. For a base on balls. Anything positive that happened for our team, we applauded and then we turned our focus to the next pitch. And pitch by pitch we started to see that it really isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
And then, we won.
It was a warm Saturday afternoon. The first warm day of the season. We had a game in the morning that went pretty much the way every other game had gone and ended the way pretty much every other game had ended, with loss and disappointment. But there was a Zen-ness in those of us on the bench that day. Ah, we lost, but it was a nice day and we have another game this afternoon. No use in crying over spilled milk and all that.
I wasn’t looking forward to the afternoon game. It was going to be a long day for us with the morning game, team photos, a Boy Scout event at noon and then the afternoon game. Plus, my husband was out of town so it was all on me. The last thing I wanted to do at 4:30 was sit and watch another devastating loss then head home to spend Saturday night with a despondent player.
Two of our players were unable to make the second game so we borrowed a couple of kids from other teams, one from our league and one from the league below us. Both were known to be very skilled athletes. (Our coaches are no dummies and both being parents of kids on the team were no doubt experiencing their fair share of tears and disappointment.) We were ahead by six runs early on. The team we were playing seemed tired from their game earlier in the day and, despite being one of the best teams in the league, they were making mistakes. It looked like we were actually going to win this game.
In the top of the fourth we were nearing the two-hour mark. In this league there are a lot of nuances about when a game is actually over. You have to play at least four innings, but you can’t start a new inning after a certain time period (I think it’s 1 hour and 45 minutes) unless both coaches agree, and if the game goes past a certain time limit (something around 2 hours) you revert to the score at the end of the last full inning, etc, etc. I may have some of this wrong. It’s very complex. Anyway, the coaches agreed that this would be the last inning and as such the “mercy rule” of five runs per inning would not apply. The other team got the chance to score as many runs as they could in the bottom of the fourth. They needed six runs to tie and seven runs to win.
O was brought in to pitch. He’s a good closer, but could he handle the pressure?
He walked a couple of batters, they scored twice and his team managed to get two outs. The score was 16 – 12 with two runners on and one out to go. O was one strike away from winning the game for his team. The batter got a hit that should have been caught, but was missed by our player and he made it to first, the runner at third scored. 16-13, men on first and second.
O got the next batter to a full count before he swung, connected and hit a line drive between first and second that should have been an easy out. Our first basemen dropped the ball. Bases loaded. Bottom of the 4th. Batter up.
I looked at O. He looked determined, but there was worry in his face. He knew this game could go either way and that it depended in large part on him. He didn’t waiver.
Strike three, baby!
Game over and we won!
I started to cry as O ran off the mound and toward his cheering teammates. They fell into a huge pile of joy on the ground. Little-leaguers way of hugging each other. Then they got up, led a cheer for the other team and lined up for the traditional “good game” parade where each team high fives every member of the other team and says, “Good game.”
After that everyone started to gather their stuff and get ready to go home, but the coach said, “Wait a minute, come sit down.”
After every single game our coaches have a team meeting in which the kids are asked to talk about all the good things that happened that game. Players must mention one good thing a fellow teammate did that game. Some of these meetings this year must have been tough, with tears and hard feelings and defeat swirling around in the air. But they did it, after every single game.
I sat in on this one, the first one I had watched all year. It started with the kids talking about each other’s great plays and best moments. “O shut ’em down.” “T made a great play.” “J was awesome in the field.”
And that would have been enough to bring more tears to the eyes of this New Age mama, but at the end one of the kids who they had borrowed, who plays on an opposing team (the best team in the league this year) said, “I liked how when they started coming back…how all of you guys just stayed in the ballgame. You guys weren’t like ‘Aw, dang it now we’re going to lose,’ you just went back and stopped those guys. And you beat the fourth best team in the league.” This kid played his heart out for us and when the game was over he made a point to congratulate and encourage these kids who he has played against – and beaten – all year long.
And that was the moment that I got it. The reason O is on this team this year is because that kind of sportsmanship, that kind of class, that kind of LOVE is something you only learn from adversity.
This kid, the kid we borrowed, grew up on the team my son is now on, with these coaches and many of these kids. Despite being one of the best players in the league, he’s lost a lot of games, suffered a lot of defeat and, yes, probably shed a few tears, but what it has built inside of him is a ten year old who cannot only play his heart out despite the odds, but can encourage other kids to do the same.
And that is how the game should be played.
You know what happened next? Two days later, without any guest players, my son’s team won another game.
This time they beat the second best team in the league and I have no doubt that it was the confidence they gained and the lessons they learned on a warm Saturday afternoon when no one, least of all them, thought they had a chance, that made it possible.
They have lost every game since and as the playoffs start this week we are under no illusion that a championship is in our future, but at this point it doesn’t really matter because what we have already won this year can never be lost and will never be forgotten.
Which brings me back to Grantland Rice.
When I was trolling the internet, trying to attribute this quote, I came across this poem on Wikipedia from which the old adage stems:
“For when the One Great Scorer comes To mark against your name, He writes – not that you won or lost – But how you played the Game.” (from the poem “Alumnus Football”)
I could not have been more surprised to learn that what Grantland Rice was talking about was not football, or baseball, or soccer, or any other sport in fact, but nothing less than the game of life.
It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game…of life.
And how do you play the game not just to win, but to encourage others, to keep the faith, to do your best, and to spread love everywhere you go? You stay in the moment. You do your best right now. You keep your eye on the ball.
No biography available for this author.