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The Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing, Myth!
This familiar quote has haunted me throughout my training years, 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 insight. 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 after whom the trophy is named the Super Bowl; the great Vince Lombardi. News flash: he never said it; what he said was “winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.” The misquote is from a Hollywood production starring John Wayne and Donna Reed called “Trouble Along the Way” (Warner Brothers 1953) which was filmed in black and white and was a story in which Wayne plays a coach and a single parent with a daughter in a private Catholic college and Donna Reed a social worker concerned about the child. In the film, a game is played while Donna Reed and the little girl are standing in the stands watching a scene. The scene shifts between shots of the Duke pacing along the touchline barking plays and igniting his team, then to some priests waving the school colors and finally to Donna Reed and the little girl who seems to be about 10-12 years old. old. Donna Reed comments to the girl that she hopes the boys enjoy the game and give it their all or something, when the little girl responds with the line… “well you know what father (so and so) says always… “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” This line came from a Hollywood production from the mouth of a 10-year-old fictional character. Some how this line has been attributed to Vince Lombardi (some say because of his religious affiliation with the Catholic Church) and he spent the rest of his life until his final days trying to correct that mistake with sportscasters and writers.
I suspect, like many others, that this kind of thinking, that winning is the only thing, has dominated the way many coaches and parents view athletic competition, and when our children, our school team or we don’t win every competition then there must be something wrong. Is it possible that something else is gained that at the moment neither I, the parent, nor I, the coach can grasp in my moment of temporary setback? It’s the notion of winning all the time that’s so ingrained in our society that we do all sorts of things, including ignoring our higher sense of self to achieve it. Sometimes we are willing to do “whatever it takes”, even if it means not doing the right thing. Confused yet? Of course you are because unfortunately, once we remove the “winning is everything” mindset, we are forced to look elsewhere for the real purpose of these competitions. While searching, the answer I discovered is not in my head. It’s really in the heart with a capital H, and I’ll get to that in a moment.
If you consider winning and losing as a whole, the fact is that every time you enter a court, your odds are 50/50. It’s a simple truth, the world as we can perceive it is made up of a set of opposites, hot versus cold, high versus low, winner versus loser etc. everything in creation is a world of duality. In fact, you cannot experience one without the other. Imagine living with only daylight? Only darkness? One compliments the other. Without sorrow, it is not joy. Without an adversary, we do not play the game. So how do we operate in this world of duality? Also, where do we put our attention to succeed instead of fail? Also, more specifically, how do we participate in competitive sports? The answer lies in our higher sense of self. There’s a larger portion of us who know how to take all of this duality and see it for what it is and what it isn’t. We are much more than winners or losers in this game! We are in fact the creators of our own destinies. And depending on how we notice and observe the workings of our own thoughts and the feelings they create, we can see the good in gain and loss. We can experience both the good and the bad of winning and losing, without forgetting our true selves. This is not a new concept, Eastern forms of competition have taught it for thousands of years; they even refer to their sports as “arts” as in martial arts. Whose objectives are not to annihilate or destroy adversaries but to honor, respect and love them. The awareness being that without an adversary the artist does not have to demonstrate the skills he has mastered anyway. The competition is based on both opponents doing their best, giving 100% and enjoying the chance to compete. It is not in victory or defeat but in competition that the athlete/artist is able to demonstrate his level of mastery. Vince Lombardi’s correction of the famous misquote “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.” Has a very subtle but powerful distinction of winning is the only thing. This distinction lies in the power of our attention and intention. Why participate in an activity if you’re not doing it to the best of your ability? Our intention should always be to do our best to win or succeed, but if on any given day we don’t have the result, we’d rather we weren’t expected to take it personally. We give our best, learn from our mistakes and simply improve as we grow. I have a personal motto that goes something like this: “Make it personal, don’t take it personal.” What I mean by that is that I want to do things to the best of my ability, I personally want to strive to give my all, while remembering that whether 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 that time.
I remember a number of times in my coaching career and in my career as a parent when my son and I both learned lessons during his days as a peewee flag football player. One season he was drafted into a team that couldn’t win a game. He was complaining on our rides 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 a player, but I also knew that it would be worth going on and continuing what he had pledged to do. After much discussion and persuasion from me, he agreed to finish the season and just give his best regardless of the score in any given game. His team never won a single game in the regular season, but lo and behold, a small miracle happened. By the time of the playoffs, his team managed to win the two most important games of the year. That is true; they won the semi-final and the championship matches. I took the opportunity to point out to my son that if he had stopped, he would have missed the title of champion. We also discussed that you never really know how things might turn out if you keep your promises and your word and 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 as well. I recently watched “Friday Night Lights”, another football movie. This is the highly competitive game of Texas High School Football. The best part was the scene in the locker room at halftime of the “big game” when coach Gary Gaines starts talking about “Being Perfect”, the team’s context for the season. It starts by telling players to forget what’s on the scoreboard, forget about winning, and get back on the pitch to give their best, to give it their all for each other. and to do so with love in their hearts. , and a sense of joy from playing the game. He tells them how much he loves each of them and shows them what he hopes they’ve learned… If they’re playing the game to the best of their abilities , and for all the right reasons, the final score is not their reward; the feeling they leave with will be. We all seek, the answer we find in our Heart with a capital H. this real answer. In football or the game of life, if we play hard, give our best and love what we do, there will only be winners and champions, no matter what the dashboard. Playing the game for all the right reasons is key.
Finding and understanding the right reasons to compete was and remains the biggest challenge I face on a daily basis, whatever the task. I live in this world of duality and nature; I only prefer half of what makes up my perception of reality. I only want to win, I only want happiness etc. The problem is that the more I am attached to what I want, the more I also attach to their opposites. Reality is a double-edged sword. The answer to this riddle is to not be attached, but rather to play the game with your heart and not with your head. You see, it is your head and your ego that sees and experiences duality and it is your head that creates the 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 the gain and loss personally; your heart, on the other hand, will go with the flow feeling the joy and love of just playing the game. It is love that brings you back to the game time and time again, whether you win or lose. In other words, love isn’t everything…it’s the only thing. Winning is a happy by-product.
A few years ago, when I was an assistant high school coach; I was listening to our head coach talking to the players at halftime at a college basketball game. He told them that to be winners, they should work hard, play smart, have fun and do it together. I found that to be very good advice. And as I listened to him talk about these ideas, it occurred to me that before anyone wants to engage in all the hard work it takes to win, something else should also be present. The reason we become true winners and champions in sport and in life is primarily because – in addition to committing to work hard, play smart, have 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 losses, and show up to play again and again. It turns out that when you examine the mindset and hearts of true champions (whether in sport or in life), what you see and hear from them is how love it. Whatever “it” is for them. All great champions have this as a basis for participating in their chosen endeavors. All great people have learned to play the game with their hearts and simply use their head as a compass, a tool to navigate their path to success. This is the most valuable lesson that sport and competition have taught me. This is the most valuable lesson we can teach our young athletes. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s loving what you do that means everything.”
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