Losers win


Coping with failure defines character

On competition


Omaha, Neb. -- One of my favorite things about sports is also one of the cruelest things about sports: Not everyone goes home a winner.

For there to be joy, there has to be anguish. For an athlete to be thrilled by his or her sense of accomplishment, another athlete has to feel devastated. It is the natural order of competition, and it is also, in many respects, a metaphor for what drives us as a country.

You see it play out every four years at the Olympic trials in every sport. For four years, American swimmer Brendan Hansen was the best 200-meter breaststroker in the world. But Thursday night, for whatever reason, he swam as if he were wearing lead flippers, finishing fourth in the final. He'll still swim at the Olympics in the 100 breaststroke, but he'll watch his best event on television or from the stands.

Hansen doesn't find this twist of fate unfair. He won't be lobbying the U.S. Olympic team to make an exception for him based on past performance, and he won't hire a lawyer to file an injunction. He said he'll simply do all he can to help the two American men who will swim the event in Beijing - Scott Spann and Eric Shanteau - win gold.

One of the hard truths most sane people figure out about life is that not everyone deserves to be an all-star. Not everyone should get into Harvard or win a Pulitzer. Cutthroat competition is a good thing, which is why it's so absurd that more and more Little Leagues are eliminating all-star games (as the community of Beachwood, Ohio, did recently) or deciding not to keep score, hoping to avoid bruised egos or crazed parents.

No one, especially me, can stand the lunatic T-ball manager who coaches a group of 6-year-olds the way General Patton strategized against the Germans, but on the other side of the coin, there are important lessons to be taught in winning and losing.

Contrary to the way certain youth leagues are trending these days, not everyone deserves a trophy, and not everyone deserves equal playing time. No one's life is going to be ruined by being left off an All-County or an All-Metro team. In fact, it might just make those athletes that much more determined to succeed in life and prove the rest of the world wrong.

At every newspaper I've worked for, we've gotten calls and e-mails from angry parents demanding to know why we don't cover junior varsity sports. Or Little League games. "They work just as hard as everyone else," these complaints often go. "Why can't you mention their names?"

Because, I usually answer, what they are doing is not news. It is without question valuable and important and an essential part of the grand experiment we call "community," but that doesn't necessarily mean it's news.

Olympic swimmer Matt Biondi, who won 11 medals during his career and is now a math teacher, a coach and a dad, said something yesterday at the trials that made sense to me when I think about sports, especially as it relates to kids.

"So many adults want their kids to feel good, so they send them places or buy them things," Biondi said. "They prop them up with value judgments like `You're such a good boy' or `You're such a pretty girl.' I realized very early on what kids really want is what's most valuable to you, and that's your time."

Some of the most important moments in my life came when I failed to make a team or earn a scholarship. Struggling can be a good thing. Disappointment can be devastating, whether it comes at a young age or, as in Hansen's case, after four years of swimming laps at 6 a.m.

But the way you deal with it, in athletic competition and in life, is how we define character.


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