The Triumph and the Struggle

BY USBSF CEO Darrin Steele

“The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” Those words are part of the Olympic Creed and they are as relevant today as they were in 1908 when they were first uttered by Pierre de Coubertin. Make no mistake, the father of the modern Olympics was sending a message of greatness. Human beings are natural competitors and Olympic caliber athletes are notorious for their competitive nature. Our society is obsessed with winning, so it seems odd that there are so many misconceptions about it.

The ‘Tiger Woods effect’ is what I call the belief that any kid can become a great athlete if they start early enough and train hard enough. Not only does this Walter Mitty parental fantasy ignore genetics, but it’s also a recipe for killing the joy that kids naturally get from sports. When you kill the joy, you have probably killed the benefits that should be learned as well. Tiger Woods was sitting on a genetic winning lottery ticket before he took his first swing. A colleague of mine once asked me for advice on getting his ten-year old son to work harder at hockey practice. He had tried a variety of carrot-and-stick techniques, but nothing seemed to work. My advice was both simple and difficult. I told him the only way to get a kid to work hard in a sport is by helping them fall in love it. Once that happens, get out of their way. Research shows that two of the most common reasons kids fall out of love with competitive sports is: 1) a parental emphasis on winning, and 2) the belief that they have been successful due to natural ability rather than effort. Part of the job of parents and coaches is to help define success for kids because it should be defined differently for each. If you want the sport to teach them anything about life, that success had better be connected more to the struggle than the triumph.

Too often it seems we skip right over the process of winning and focus on the benefits. That’s a problem. Olympic athletes provide inspiration for entire generations of young people, but that magic is wasted if we fail to learn the right lessons. We typically see our most inspirational athletes when they are at the top of their game. They are great examples of what human beings can become, but we rarely get to see the journey. If we really want to understand winning, we need to understand the importance of losing.

Losing gets far too little attention, but it is probably the single most important tool for learning how to win. Great athletes rise to the top because they continue to increase the challenges they face and they are willing to risk losing. It is the challenge of greater competition that allows these athletes to test themselves and improve their own performance. The coaches that produce top athletes year after year understand this and tend to share the same basic pattern in their approach to teaching. Establish a short-term goal that supports the long-term strategy, provide positive recognition when the goal is met, then quickly move to a new, more challenging goal. That simple pattern forces athletes to continually improve and teaches them to use failure as a tool for success. Great athletes hate losing, but they don’t fear it.

Show me a winning athlete and I’ll show you an athlete who got there by learning how to lose. I’ll show you an athlete who learned that hard work is as important as talent and the excitement of winning has less to do with coming in first than earning the respect of the person in the mirror. Every great athlete has a story about a triumph that meant very little to them and a struggle they are proud of in the face of defeat.

Winning doesn’t just happen. There are plenty of people walking among us who had the genetic tools to become great athletes. Potential is important, but that’s just the starting point. There is no clear journey for going from a young athlete with potential and a dream to an Olympic or professional athlete. But that’s a big part of why we love sports. Each athlete has a unique starting point and a unique set of resources they use to chart their course. It’s incredibly personal, incredibly strategic, and when athletes feel they brought out the best in themselves, incredibly rewarding. It’s only then that the lasting benefits of winning can be realized.

Most athletes will not become Olympians, but if the journey includes the same mentality of risking failure through increasing challenges, then the effort will serve them well in life. That is why a narrow focus on the benefits of winning is so misguided. We have seen movement in both extremes with youth sports. Some programs are only about winning and others aren’t about winning at all. Neither extreme builds character or teaches the crucial benefits of losing.

On the other side of the ‘Tiger Woods’ extreme, we find programs that want to make sure everyone gets the benefits of winning by making sure no one loses. The irony is that those programs actually ensure that everyone loses. At very young ages, kids might believe you when you tell them they won if they didn’t, but it doesn’t last. More importantly, the benefits of winning are correlated with the struggle, not the triumph. This approach denies kids the opportunity to learn from losing. It denies them the experience of having to work hard to overcome weaknesses and the pride and esteem earned from discovering that hard work can change outcomes. It denies kids the opportunity to learn and apply strategic thinking. They can’t be strategic if they don’t know their starting point. They can’t face their weaknesses if they don’t get the opportunity to identify them. They can’t take pride in their strengths if they don’t get an opportunity to see how they measure up against the strengths of others. Real life involves winning and losing and we need to teach kids how to deal with both. In the words of Confucius, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

The 2014 Winter Olympics are just around the corner. As we watch these amazing athletes inspire the next generation of kids to strive for greatness, remember one thing; none of them learned how to win without first learning how to lose.

Over a century ago, Pierre de Coubertin understood that it was the struggle, not the triumph that takes each of us on a journey to greatness. But he left it to us to discover that greatness comes from within.