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The Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing, Myth!
This well-known quote has haunted me through all my years of coaching, and I suspect I’m not alone. If 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 over 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 it; what he said is “winning isn’t everything – but wanting to win is.” The misquote comes from a Hollywood production starring John Wayne and Donna Reed titled “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 loner parent with a daughter at a private Catholic college and Donna Reed a social worker concerned about the child. In the film, a game is being played while Donna Reed and the little girl are up in the stands watching a scene. The scene switches between shots of Duke walking the sidelines barking plays and getting his team fired up, then to a couple of chaplains waving the school colors and finally to Donna Reed and the little girl who seems to be around 10-12 years. old. Donna Reed comments to the girl about how she hopes the boys enjoy the game and give it their all or something when the little girl replies with the line…”yeah, you know what daddy (so and so) always says…” Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” This line came from a Hollywood production out of the mouth of a 10-year-old fictional character. Some of how 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 to his last days trying to right that wrong with sports commentators 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 sports competitions, and when our children, our school teams, or we do not win every competition. then there must be something wrong. Is it possible that something else is being won that neither I the parent nor I the coach can grasp in my moment of temporary setback? It is the idea of winning all the time that is so ingrained in our society that we do all kinds of things, including ignoring our higher sense of self, to achieve it. At times 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 when we remove the idea that “winning is everything” we are forced to look elsewhere for the real purpose of these contests. Looking, the answer I have discovered is not in my head. It really lies in the heart with a capital H, and I’ll come back to that in a moment.
If you look at winning and losing as a whole, the fact is that every time you enter a field, your chances are 50/50. This is a simple truth, the world as we perceive it is made up of a set of opposites, warm vs. cold, up vs. down, win vs. losing 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 this is no joy. Without an opponent, we don’t get to play the game. So how then do we operate in this world of duality? Also, where do we put our attention to succeed rather than fail? Additionally, more to the point, 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 it for what it is and what it is not. We are far 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 our own thoughts and the feelings they create, we can see the good in both winning and losing. We can experience both the good and the bad of winning and losing, and not forget our true selves. This is not a new concept, Eastern forms of competition have taught this for thousands of years; they even refer to their sport as “art” as in martial arts. If the goals are not to annihilate or destroy opponents, but to honor, respect and love them. The realization is that without an opponent, the artist does not have to demonstrate the skills he has mastered anyway. The competition is based on both opponents demonstrating their best, giving 100% and enjoying the chance to compete. It is not in winning or losing, but in competition that the athlete/artist is able to demonstrate his level of mastery. Vince Lombardi’s correction of the famous misquote “Winning is not everything – but wanting to win is.” Has a very subtle but powerful difference from winning is the only thing. That distinction 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, but if on any given day we don’t have the outcome we prefer, we are not meant to 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 something like this: “Make it personal; don’t take it personally.” What I mean by that is that I will do things to the best of my ability, I will personally make it my business to give everything I can while remembering that if I succeed or fail it is not a real reflection of who I really am, it’s just the result of my best at the time.
I can recall a number of times in my coaching career and my parenting career where my son and I both learned lessons during his days as a peewee flag football player. One season he was drafted to a team that couldn’t win a game. He complained about our trips home and at one point 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 through on what he had committed to doing. After much discussion and persuasion on my part, he agreed to finish the season and simply give his best, no matter what the score was in any given game. His team never won a single game in the regular season, but lo and behold, a small miracle happened. When it came time for the playoffs, his team was able to find success in the two most important games of the year. It is true; they won the semi-finals and the championship games. I took the opportunity to point out to my son that if he had stopped, he would have missed out on becoming a champion. We also discussed how you never really know how things will 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 as well. I recently watched “Friday Night Lights,” another movie about football. It’s about 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. He starts by telling the players to just forget about what’s on the scoreboard, forget about winning, and just go back out on the field to do their best, give everything for each other and do it with love in their hearts, and a sense of joy in 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 end result is not their reward; the feeling they leave with will be We are all looking for, the answer we find in our heart with capital H. this right answer. In football or the game of life, if we play our best, give our best and love what we do, there will only be winners and champions, no matter what the scoreboard says. Playing the game for all the right reasons is key.
Finding and understanding the right reasons to compete was and is the biggest challenge I face on a daily basis regardless of the task. I live in this world of duality and of nature; I prefer only half of what makes up my perception of reality. I only want to win, I only want happiness, etc. The problem is the more I am attached to what I want, the more I also become attached to their opposites. Reality is a double-edged sword. The answer to this puzzle is not to be attached, but rather to play the game from your heart and not your head. You see, it is your head and your ego that sees and experiences the 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 victory and loss personally; your heart on the other hand just wants to go with the flow and feel the joy and love of just playing the game. It’s love that takes 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 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 during halftime of a college basketball game. He told them that to be winners they had to work hard, play smart, have fun and do it together. I thought that was very good advice. And as I listened to him articulate these ideas, it occurred to me that before anyone would ever commit to all the hard work it takes to win, something else had to be present as well. The reason we become real winners and champions in sports and in life is mainly because – in addition to committing to the hard work, playing smart, the fun, etc. – we 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 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 masters have this as a basis for engaging in their chosen endeavors. All great people have learned to play the game from their heart and simply use their head as a compass – a tool to navigate their way to success. This is the most valuable lesson sports and competition has 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 matters.”
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