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The Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing, Myth!
This famous quote has haunted me throughout my years of coaching, and I suspect I’m not alone. In case you are reading this and have no idea where this quote came from, let me give you a little background. The saying “Winning isn’t everything…it’s the only thing” has been attributed for more than 45 years to the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers football team, the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named; the great Vince Lombardi. News flash: he never said that; what he said was “winning isn’t everything – but wanting to win is.” The misquote comes from a Hollywood production starring John Wayne and Donna Reed called “Trouble Along the Way” (Warner Brothers 1953) which was shot in black and white and is a story in which Wayne plays a coach and a single parent with a daughter. at a private Catholic college and Donna Reed, a social worker concerned about the child. In the film, the game plays out as Donna Reed and the little girl stand in the stands watching the scene. The scene pans between shots of Duke striding along the sidelines barking at plays and firing up his team, then to several priests waving school colors and finally to Donna Reid and a girl who looks to be about 10-12 years old. Donna Reid comments to the little girl that she hopes the boys enjoy the game and do their best or something, when the little girl responds by saying…”well you know what father (so and so) always says…”Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” This line came out of a Hollywood production from the mouth of a ten-year-old fictional character. Somehow this line was attributed to Vince Lombardi (some say because of his religious affiliation with the Catholic Church) and he spent the rest of his life right up until his last days trying to correct that mistake to sports commentators and writers.
I doubt, like many others, that this kind of thinking, that winning is the only thing, has dominated many coaches and parents in watching sports competition, and when our children, our school team or we do not win every competition. then something must be wrong. Is it possible that something else is being gained that neither I, the parent, nor I, the coach, can currently understand in my moment of temporary regression? The idea that we are constantly winning is so ingrained in our society that we do all kinds of things, including ignoring our higher sense of self, in order to achieve it. Sometimes we are willing to do “whatever it takes” even if it means not doing the right thing. Still confused? Of course it is because unfortunately, once we remove the attitude that “winning is everything”, we are forced to look elsewhere for the true purpose of these competitions. Looking, the answer I discovered was not in my head. It really lies in the heart with a capital H, and I’ll come back to that in a minute.
If you look at winning and losing as a whole, the fact is that every time you step on the field your chances are 50/50. This is a simple truth, the world as we can perceive it is made up of a set of opposites, hot vs. cold, up vs. down, win vs. lose, etc. Everything in creation is a world of duality. In fact, you can’t experience one without the other. Imagine living with only daylight? Just darkness? One compliments the other. Without sorrow, this is not joy. Without an opponent, we cannot play the game. So how do we operate in this world of duality? Furthermore, where should we focus our attention to succeed instead of fail? Additionally, and more importantly, how do we participate in competitive sports? The answer lies in our higher sense of self. There is a larger part of us that knows how to take all this duality and see what is and what is not. We are much more than just winners or losers in this game! We are actually the creators of our own destinies. And depending on how we notice and observe the functioning of our own thoughts and the feelings they create, we can see the good in both victory and defeat. We can experience both the good and the bad of victory and defeat without forgetting our true selves. This is not a new concept, Eastern forms of competition have taught it for thousands of years; they even call their sports “skills” as in martial arts. whose goals are not to destroy or annihilate opponents, but to honor, respect and love them. The realization is that without an opponent, the artist has no opportunity to demonstrate the skills he has mastered. The competition is based on both opponents showing their best, giving 100% and enjoying the opportunity to compete. It is not in winning or losing, but in competition that the athlete/artist can demonstrate his level of mastery. Vince Lombardi’s correction of the famous misquote “Winning isn’t everything – but the desire to win is.” It has a very subtle but powerful difference from winning is the only thing. That difference lies in the power of our attention and intention. Why participate in an activity unless you do it to the best of your ability? Our intention should always be to do our best to win or succeed, however, if on any given day we don’t have the outcome we would prefer, we shouldn’t take it personally. We do our best, learn from our mistakes, and simply get better as we grow. I have a personal motto that goes like this: “Make it personal; don’t take it personally”. By that I mean I want to do things to the best of my ability, I want it to be my job personally to give my best, while at the same time remembering that if I succeed or fail, it’s not a true reflection of who I really am, it’s just the result of my best efforts at the time.
I can think of several times in my coaching and parenting career when both my son and I learned lessons during his days as a football player. One season he was drafted into a team that couldn’t win a game. He would complain on the drive home and at one point he told me he didn’t want to play anymore. I understood his pain, having been there myself as a coach and player, but I also knew there would be some value in continuing and following what he had committed himself to. After much discussion and persuasion from me, he agreed to finish the season and simply give his best regardless of the result of any game. His team never won a game in the regular season, but lo and behold, a small miracle happened. When it came time for the playoffs, his team managed to be successful in the two most important games of the year. That’s right; they won the semi-final and championship games. I took the opportunity to point out to my son that if he had quit, he would have missed out on being a champion. We also talked about how you never know how things might turn out if you keep your commitments and your word and just do your best.
Earlier I mentioned a Hollywood movie that produced a very dangerous and unrealistic concept. Hollywood has also produced some very amazing and wonderful stories to inspire us. I recently watched “Friday Night Lights” another movie about football. It’s all about the highly competitive game of high school football in Texas. The best part was the locker room scene at halftime of the “big game” when coach Gary Gaines starts talking about “Being Perfect,” the team’s context for the season. He begins by telling the players to simply forget what’s on the scoreboard, to forget about winning and to get back on the field to do their best, to do their best for each other and to do it with love in their hearts, and a sense of joy for playing the game. He tells them how much he loves each of them and models for them what he hopes they have learned…If they play the game to the best of their ability, and for all the right reasons, the final score is not their reward; the feeling they leave with will be. We all search, we find the answer in our Heart with a capital H. this is the right answer. In the game of football or the game of life, if we play hard, do our best and love what we do, there will only be winners and champions, regardless of what the scoreboard says. Playing the game for all the right reasons is the key.
Finding and understanding the right reasons to compete was and is the biggest challenge I face every day, regardless of the task. I live in this world of duality and by nature; I prefer only half of what makes up my perception of reality. I just want to win, I just want happiness, etc. The problem is that the more attached I am to what I want, the more attached I am to their opposites. Reality is a double-edged sword. The answer to this conundrum is not to be tied down, but to play the game from your heart, not your head. You see, it is your head and your ego that sees and experiences duality and it is your head that creates preferences based on all the information it has gathered over a lifetime of living in this world of opposites. It is your head that will take victory and defeat personally; on the other hand, your heart will flow, feeling the joy and love of simply playing the game. It’s love that gets you back in the game – again and again – whether you win or lose. In other words, love is not everything…it is the only thing. Winning is a happy byproduct.
A few years ago, while I was an assistant coach at the high school level; I listened to our head coach talk to the players at halftime of a varsity basketball game. He told them they would have to work hard, play smart, have fun and do it together to be victorious. I thought that was very good advice. And as I listened to him talk about these ideas, it dawned on me that before anyone would want to commit to all the hard work required to win, something else would have to be present. The reason why we become true winners and champions in sports and life is mainly because – apart from our commitment to hard work, smart play, fun, etc. – we have to really love what we do.
If we love what we do, it’s much easier to put in the work, bounce back from defeat, and show up to play the game again and again. As it turns out, when you examine the mindsets and hearts of true champions (whether in sports or in life), what you see and hear from them is how much they love it. Whatever “it” is to them. All great champions have this as a basis for participating in their chosen endeavors. All great men have learned to play the game from the heart and simply use their head as a compass – a tool to navigate their way to success. This is the most valuable lesson that sports and competition have taught me. This is the most valuable lesson we can teach our young athletes. “Winning isn’t everything – it’s all about loving what you do.”
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