Playing The Right Way

"It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game."

That's far more true a statement than Vince Lombardi's famous dictum, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." A few weeks ago I wrote a post discussing the recent collapse of a couple of L.A. Lakers, touching on the effect that idea has on people when they lose.

A hilarious but irrelevant t-shirt.
Winning is not everything in this life. Still, I'm unwilling to check off "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game" as true. I'll give the second clause my approval: it is how you play the game. But winning and losing matter; depending on the circumstances, they can matter a great deal.

The idea that you should be a good loser is part of the general effeminization of the past few generations in the West. For good reason it sticks in the craws of many; some people believe that the only way to be a "winner" is to be the opposite of what a "good loser" is. Those are the guys who threw temper tantrums in the locker room, who become the Little League parents everyone hates.

We ought not to be good losers. As in so many other things, our age offers us a false dichotomy, reduced to two simple ideas because it can't handle anything abstract, eternal, or universal. The question is not whether we're to be winners or losers. The question is how we play, and in particular, how we live out one particular abstract but oh-so-real word.

I reduce the question to an ethical one when talking to my kids, introducing what I think is the fundamental idea behind behavior in sports, and a vital one in real violent conflict as well. The question ought to be whether or not you'll play with honor.

My two oldest have begun to play organized sports, basketball and soccer so far. They are seven and six years old. I don't tell them it's not whether you win or lose. I tell them it's about honor. And they can handle the idea at their age very easily. They've both felt embarrassed at one point or another; more importantly, they
both have felt exalted and exultant before.

Honor, as I've explained it to them, is divided into two kinds, honor you get and honor you give.

Honor you get has two parts. The first is what God thinks of you. The second is what other people think of you. The first matters far more than the second. If you have the second, but not the first, you have nothing. You have to play sports in a way that fits with what God wants, and hopefully others will think of you well also.

Honor you give is the responsibility part of our behavior on the court or field. (As an aside, cultures that obsess over honor, and engage in practices like honor killings, are not obsessed with honor. They are obsessed with shame. They are called shame societies. Honor is light, shame is darkness.) My kids have heard the phrase "be a good sport". I explain that to them as giving honor. And that broadens the behavior in a way that is immediately and visibly practical to them.

The phrase "be a good sport" limits the thinking to shaking hands after a game. Giving honor means lots of things. Shaking hands with opponents. Congratulating rivals. Listening to coach. Helping those who lag in practice. Giving less skilled players a chance. The idea even moves out of organized sports and into everyday competition.

For example, if you're seven years old, you don't actively try to crush a four-year-old in competition (say you're playing soccer or checkers). That doesn't mean you let him win, but it does mean that you give honor by encouraging him and not humiliating him. And it means you get honor as well; it's not easy for some boys to understand that everyone is embarrassed for you when you crush the four-year-old.

I've been a basketball coach a few times, first for high school kids, and more recently, for my own grade school kids. I wasn't sure if my coaching style would fly with young kids, but I was pleased to discover that it did. I am stern and demanding. I tell kids when they're messing up in practice. I don't tolerate time-wasting. I insist that they work to correct their weaknesses, and that they not make the same mistakes. And I shower them with esteem and honor. It's not helpful to make stuff up; it's destructive to be arbitrary. I pay attention to each child, and find real things to value and praise, and I am sure to praise them publicly. If I demand honor from the kids I coach (which I do), I must generously give honor.

So that's what I'm going to try to instill in the kids. Not "be a good winner", or "be a good loser", or "be a good sport". Instead, it's "play with honor".