Today, my son and his teammates played their last game at a 12-under summer basketball league. They are a relatively new team of 10- and 11-year-olds who went up against teams from other schools and even against older teams from their own school. But before you even start to think that this might be a piece on their Cinderella story, I might as well tell you that they finished as many predicted—with a win-loss record of 0 to 8.
Every game was hard-fought. Winning margins against them were always in double-digits. While the boys were never outnumbered, they were often outsmarted and outplayed. More often than not, they could not match the physicality and stamina of the other team. They could not outrun, outshoot, outrebound their more experienced opponents, at least, not all the time. Still, the boys showed up and suited up, game after game. They came and played. They played and got played. And in the end of every single game, they lost.
I don’t know what the coaches told the boys and the parents about playing in that league. I just know that, at some point, even I myself started to question the wisdom of joining a league where you’re not just underdogs but something short of misfits. I began to wonder how it might have been affecting the boys not only to lose, but to consistently lose, and by huge margins. I wondered what sort of damage it was doing to their self-esteem and how much self-doubt it was planting in their hearts. They just have to charge it to experience, I often told myself. What doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. Still, I wondered.
Today, as the game clock was winding down, and my son and his teammates played out the remaining minutes, trying to chip away at an insurmountable lead, I found myself asking, “What do you teach a team when you let them play a game they cannot win?” Surprisingly, the answers came quickly to me, as I watched our boys in blue and white continue to push themselves in the dying minutes of the game.
What do you teach a team when you let them play a game they cannot win?
You teach them that winning isn’t everything. You teach them to fight. You teach them that sometimes the struggle is the real battle, and that the greatest battle is always against oneself. You teach them that, often, there is more to be learned from the journey than the destination itself. You teach them that losing and failing and falling short are normal human experiences. You teach them that the numbers at the sound of the buzzer are not measures of their courage or their self-worth, and that their real score is how much of their hearts they have left behind on the court. You teach them that, in any game and in life, the true victors are those who bravely fight, second by second, minute by minute, play by play, day by day.
You teach them humility. You teach them that there will always be others who are greater than they are, no matter how big they think of themselves or how far they may have come. You teach them that they are not and do not have to be the best all the time; they only need to give their best, and to strive to be better persons than they were yesterday. You teach them that life dishes out lessons all the time, and even their opponents can be their best teachers. You teach them to accept themselves, and to respect where they are in their journey, even if it’s not where they want to be. You teach them to look up to something or someone, and to strive.
You teach them to rely on one another. You teach them that the battle is not fought, and will not be won, alone. Out in the court and in life, no one wins without an ally or a brother by his side. You teach them to build on the strengths of others and to accept their weaknesses. You teach them to seek help, when it’s needed, and to offer it whenever they can. You teach them to believe, not only in themselves, but also in others. You teach them to pour out themselves and to trust that, in the end, none of it will be wasted.
I don’t know how much of what I’ve said my son has actually learned. It is something that will unfold in time. Maybe, like the Sixers, I can just tell myself to trust the process, and just be grateful for everything, because sometimes, we win a lot by losing.
21 May 2017