Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sports: It's Mostly About Losing

Earlier this week the Boston Bruins lost the Stanley Cup. Last week the Spurs lost the NBA Championship. These teams were just the most recent of a long list of teams to lose those titles. 28 NHL teams didn't failed to make the championship series and another 28 teams sat out the NBA Finals Series.

Yesterday the mighty Roger Federer  experienced the taste of defeat in only the second round of Wimbledon. He wasn't alone however. "On a crazy day, Federer was one of seven players who have been ranked No. 1 to depart the tournament in a span of about 8½ hours."

Despite the extremely long odds that we'll succeed at any given sport, we talk very little about losing. When I stop and think about it, that's a little strange.  Don't get me wrong, I've never yet played competitive sport intent on losing. In fact, a fundamental tenet of competitive athletics is that all competitors play to win. But when I think of crazy coaches and parents on the sidelines at youth sports it's evident that winning is the only acceptable outcome to those people, despite the odds.

I began thinking about writing this post several weeks ago when I read about Scott West's induction into the Aussie Rules Hall of Fame. He played 19 years in the AFL. He was a club leader. He was tough. I can still see him making a characteristic run carrying the ball down the wing. Yet at the end of his career he commented "it's a huge regret of mine not playing in a grand final or winning a premiership."

Later in the same article he says regarding a Preliminary Final the Bulldogs lost after holding a five goal lead, "I remember that game as vividly as my first game, I think about it a lot, but I've never been able to bring myself to watch a replay of it."

Perhaps we look at players like LeBron James, and think that success is inevitable. But plenty of stellar players like Scott West, never win championships. Winning is not a right regardless of how much talent you possess. No one in the US demonstrates this better than Karl Malone. Malone holds the honour of scoring the second most points in an NBA career. He has the nickname "The Mailman" because "he always delivers". But he never delivered an NBA championship to the Jazz. Winning is never a right.

So How Should We Discuss Losing?

It's not cliche to say that losing develops character. (So too does winning.) Sports fans always hope that their team will learn from one year's loss and come back the next year stronger, and more determined. (Do you hear me Memphis, Pacers, Spurs???)

We generally recognise that the potential improvement that comes from challenging ourselves against more talented competition outweigh the joys of beating up on an inferior opponent. In that context although the defeat still stings we primarily look for improvement in our own performance with the goal that one day our improvement will increase our abilities beyond those of that particular opponent. The student may become the master.

In youth coaching/parenting we work to avoid bitterness, regret, feelings of inadequacy and anger. Instead we want to encourage persistence, determination, and healthy ways of handling disappointments. We point them toward other opportunities and establish priorities where sports don't have the greatest importance. Life is full of disappointments and setbacks. Competitive sports provide a cauldron for developing the character needed to overcome life's challenges.

What Does God Have to Say About Losing?

God's people have been losing for centuries. 400 years of slavery to the Egyptians. Another 400 years of intermittent oppression during the period of the Judges. 70 years of Babylonian captivity not counting the previous years as a vassal state or the complete obliteration of the Northern Kingdom.

Then Jesus dies. The Christians are burned at the stake and fed to the lions. The Muslims capture the Holy Land. Christians fight each other. Today many Christians despair at the rate of moral decay in Western civilisation most recently demonstrated by the US Supreme Court giving the green light to gay marriages: another loss.

But Jesus rose from the tomb and God placed him "at His right hand in heaven. There is nothing over Him. He’s above all rule, authority, power, and dominion; over every name invoked, over every title bestowed in this age and the next." (VOICE) In the meantime God tells us, 
"Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as they are, you will ultimately find joy in them; if you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure. And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journey and cross the finish line—mature, complete, and wanting nothing. (James 1:2-4)

Happy is the person who can hold up under the trials of life. At the right time, he’ll know God’s sweet approval and will be crowned with life. As God has promised, the crown awaits all who love Him." (VOICE)
Like a coach encouraging a youth team in whatever sport you prefer, God always affirms to us that he loves us despite our losses and struggles. He endeavours to instill in us a priority that life is about more than wins and losses. We're to place our priorities on the eternal above that of the earthly. Remembering that He has already defeated the competition. He reminds us not to spend our lives looking backwards at missed opportunities, regrets, and "if only's". Instead we're to press on with our lives bouncing back stronger and more determined to face our next challenge. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Losing can devastate or strengthen us. The more we talk about it, the greater the likelihood that we can overcome. We need to encourage each other with the reminder that any loss is only temporary, because ultimately Jesus has already scored the game winner!!

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