“Winning is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing.”
—Coach Red Sanders, UCLA Football Coach (James Murray,Sports Illustrated, 1958)
Are you as surprised as I to discover that this well-known quote did not originate with legendary Coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers? This quote, attributed at times to both of these respected men, has created a mindset through the years. It has been literally applied among many coaches and athletes to determine success and failure. However, testing its validity requires contrasting its sentiment with that of someone equally famous, Coach John Wooden, famed UCLA basketball coach:
“Success is peace of mind that is the direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming…You are the only one who knows whether you have won.” (Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks for a Better Life by John Wooden and Jay Carty.)
Coach Lombardi did say something which I believe to be true: “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?” Even with elementary-aged kids, whenever we had officials and a scoreboard, the aim was to be ahead at game’s end. Competing to win usually brings out best performances in athletes. However, all is not lost when the contest ends with your team behind.
NCAA.org provides detailed statistics about percentages of athletes who advance in their sport at specified levels. Approximately 2% of high schoolers playing sports will achieve scholarship benefits to play sports in college. Post college, less than 2% will go on to play professionally. Talk about bursting the bubble of many aspiring young players!
At our school, we held an Athletics Night where we celebrated our sports teams and coaches, unveiled a new logo, and brought in alumni athletes as special speakers. The goal of the event was to provide encouragement, information, motivation and a sense of community while messaging our program’s values. Our headliner was a prominent administrator in Tennessee high school athletics, who offered advice for parents and athletes. He shared very similar odds about the chances of college scholarships and beyond. The very next day instead of the email of praise and appreciation I was expecting, I received an email from a frustrated parent. He reported that later that evening at home, his dejected son had expressed great disappointment that his “dreams” would likely never be realized based on the statistics. Dad’s question to me was this, “Shouldn’t we protect the dreams of tender young athletes?”
His insight about the aspirations of his own son reminded me that many young athletes adopt big dreams very early on. And although as parents and coaches we must recognize the reality of the odds, one never knows whether your child will be in the 98% or the 2%. I recall a story shared by our school’s writing teacher who had taught my son and several of his sports buddies in grammar class. There was one particular assignment on which one or more of the boys had performed poorly. “You had better learn how to write,” she rebuked them, “because you will not be making your living playing sports.” Ironically several went on to play college athletics while a couple played professionally. (They also learned to write.)
Consider one more example. According to NCAA.org, there are 18,700 college men’s basketball players in their three divisions. In a national tournament format, teams must qualify or be invited to participate. In each division, only one team goes home at the end of the tournament a “winner.” If there are approximately 15 players on 3 teams, a total of 45 out of 18,700 players can claim success. What a massive waste of resources if 0.2% are the only beneficiaries.
Here’s where Coach Wooden makes more sense to me. I have the ability to choose my definition of success. And if I have met the standard of giving my best to be the best I can be, then I have succeeded. I have won. And I won’t miss dusting the trophy when the years have accumulated beyond that championship. The more enduring prize is the benefit of the sports experience having enhanced my character, my proficiency, my relationships, my life.