Losing on Purpose: My Defining Moment in Sports


What was your defining moment in sports?

Some scored the winning touchdown. Or orchestrated a come-from-behind win in a basketball tournament. Clobbered our first home run. Maybe nailing that triple axle – finally.

For me? It was the day I gave up.

It wasn’t just a loss. It wasn’t a race I was beaten in. No one tracked me down, I wasn’t hurt, and it was completely in my hands.

I just chose to toss it away. I quit.

I still don’t know why.

I’m glad that I did, though.

My athletics history is wrought with more bloopers than trophies, more mediocrity than memorable moments.

That could have changed one day in Longs Peak, CO. But it didn’t.

I can’t even remember the race distance. Not that it matters. It was about a third too long for the lesson.

Several schools participated in this track meet on a gorgeous Colorado spring day. I felt good for some reason. Really good. I rarely felt adequate in sports, let alone good.

I took to the blocks. I felt confident. Cool.

I was out of the blocks like a shot.

No one really noticed at first. I was the only John Evans Junior High runner in the heat.

And I was out front. Unfamiliar ground for me.

I remember the first turn. I was all by myself. I remember the surprised looks on my teammates’ faces, mouths agape, eyes wide, as they stumbled over each other to get up and cheer me on – as if they’d seen the sickly antelope turn the tables on the hungry leopard for once.

They cheered. I ran. I dug in. I was going to win. For the first time ever, I was going to win.

Then, a strange thing happened.

I slowed down.

One runner overcame me, then another. Two more. I’m not sure who got past me, but it felt like everyone.

I can’t say today why I didn’t keep digging in. Perhaps if I had, my life would have changed.

Maybe I’d have won again. Maybe I’d have started on the varsity football team. Maybe I’d have gotten good grades, taken care of myself, and finished college.

I had always thought that maybe the universe reigned me in that day. Reminded me of my place, which wasn’t anywhere near the winner’s podium.

I felt bitter about it. Disappointed. Disgusted with myself for having blown the chance. I told my coach that I’d injured myself. I was done for the day.

I don’t think I ran another event.

Ever.

That day wound up being just another stepping stone in my uneventful athletics career.

Or did it?

No one encouraged me that day to try again. No one said they saw something in me. When I fell behind, they turned around. Show over. Should have known better, probably.

Today, I see that kid on my team sometimes. I see that he knows mediocrity as I once did. He’s comfortable there.

I want to help this kid. Not so that he becomes the next Lionel Messi or she becomes the next Abby Wambach, but so they give themselves the chance, put their best out there and let the universe decide what to do with it.

Maybe if I’d started in football, studied hard, taken care of myself, and wrapped up that college degree, I wouldn’t know what it’s like to be that kid.

But I do. Because I did settle for mediocrity. I chose not to win.

I tell this story to my teams because I still don’t understand why I did it.

But if it put me on the path to becoming their coach today, I’m glad I did.

That doesn’t sound so mediocre, does it?

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42 Replies to “Losing on Purpose: My Defining Moment in Sports”

  1. My defining moment was when I didn’t get picked for about the tenth time for any team sport I went for. So I chose the things I could do on my own and I was probably mediocre at all of them. It’s the plodders and mediocre who keep on going in no matter what field they’ve chosen and they’re always there at the end. Big bright lights may look good but they burn out quickly.

    1. You get a different perspective from failure. There has to be that internal dialog that it’s either time to try again, or move on to something else.

      I’m definitely a plodder too – I’ve never known how it feels to be a superstar, but I do know that if you keep at it, you can sometimes (often, really) find your way.

      Or, maybe you *make* your way.

      Slow and steady wins the race, right?

      1. You can never appreciate success without knowing failure and if it keeps kicking you then it’s definitely time to move on. Slow and steady gets there at least. Yes Eli I think it’s more about what we make of it, the push, the drive to move forward is always difficult.
        Laurie.

  2. My defining moment was when I got kicked off the cheerleading squad for standing my ground about something and wearing red nail polish and refusing to take it off. It sounds small but it set me on a path of not conforming to what someone else thinks is right. I think you are seriously the best coach out there. You and Leo. 🙂 (and my dad). 🙂

    1. I love that you see that as being set upon a path. It’s those moments that we exercise those notions we have in our conscience, and give them substance. They help form the foundation of our morals.

      Leo, your dad and I are lucky!

  3. I wasn’t big into sports when I was in school. I think part of the problem was that no one really encouraged me to get involved or to keep going when I was involved. I recently read an article that said the 6 best things you can say to your children when they play sports is “I love to watch you play.” So simple. It’s the first thing I said to my son when he got off the soccer field on Saturday. Mediocre or not, I still love to watch him play.

    1. Encouragement is crucial, Jennifer. And it has to be deliberate, such as those magical six words you mentioned. This past weekend, I missed all of Grace’s tournament games because I had to take Marie to hers. “I’m sorry I missed your games,” I told her. “It’s okay,” she answered. “We’re horrible.”

      But, it’s you, I said. I come not to see wins and losses. I come to see you.

  4. Not mediocre at all. Ok, my sports moments are few and far between so the defining one? When I scored a goal for the opposite team in soccer. I was six. I cried on the field for my mom. Just kidding! It’s when I beat the entire 7th grade in a basketball free throw contest. Apparently I have perfect aim when it matters. Even though I was benched during my whole 5th grade season. And I pretty much failed math until college placement exams, in which I did so well I never had to take math in college or since.
    Not so mediocre, huh?

    1. Shaq should have taken notice of you. Perfect aim when it matters makes you kind of clutch. That’s cool. Maybe the benching in fifth grade spurred you to your greatness on the line in seventh. Before scoring her first goal on the middle school team, Marie had just gotten an earful from the coach for “giving up the ball when everyone else is working so hard.”

      I wondered how she’d react to that, because I’d never say that to her on the field. I’ve never felt she wasn’t trying at least as hard as everyone else. Less than 2 minutes later, she ripped a shot that gave her team a lead. I think on some level she wanted to make a point.

      You’re kind of a freak of nature on the tests, though. Makes me think you should go take an exam for your law degree or something. Of course, why would you want to practice law when you live the good life now?

      1. It is the good life, but, the good life sure doesn’t pay very well. I am a freak. I can do things when it matters, but not in other situations in which it matters but not to the same degree. This is probably not a strength at all.

      2. It just pays in good karma and all that stuff Jesus likes to see, that’s all. Even for a freak free-throw shooter like you. You should try and take one of those million-dollar half-court shots.

        Would that matter too much?

  5. What an amazing way to look back on that incident. It probably does play a huge part of why you are a great coach – you can relate and you try to relate and help the kids with more than just learning the game!!

  6. I was always the last guy chosen and I never had a heart for any athletics. I took phys ed because I had to and not because I wanted to. While I sucked at most sports my teachers realized that I was the only one who took time to study the rules of the game and became the defacto ref for things like volleyball and basketball. They recognized what I was good at and what I wasn’t. I’ve never regretted not being the star. Even my fellow students wouldn’t hesitate to ask me to ref because they knew I was fair. I couldn’t have asked for more.

  7. I ran because I couldn’t do other sports. I was one of those uncoordinated kids. I think maybe a defining moment for me was during a workout I couldn’t finish in college…just too hard. And my coach said, if you ever can finish a workout, you might be good. And I thought to myself, “he thinks I could be good.” It gave me the boost I needed because up until that point I felt like I was over my head. I think maybe that moment was a sign for you. You were called to be a coach. In the end, I think coaches are one of the most important roles…they teach, they mentor, they are role models. The kids you coach are lucky to have you!

    1. Thank you! We coaches must be aware that what we say can have a profound impact on a kid. Also, what we don’t say. I believe in the kids I coach, and I want them to believe in themselves, too.

      I’ll gladly turn in a first-place ribbon for this experience I’ve had as a coach. It’s changed my life.

  8. Sometimes it is a winding path that leads you straight to where you are supposed to be. 🙂
    Sports probably saved me. So my defining moment would probably be the day the coach pulled me aside and said he saw me running across the school yard during freeze tag, and that I should try out for the track team. For some reason I just shrugged and said why not. I remember my first race was the 200 metre and I had no idea what to do. He had put me against some girls in higher grades and they were side-eying me. I was nervous beyond belief at the starting line; now I just wanted this over. The starting pistol fired and all they all beat me off the line — a pretty good lead for a short race. And I remember being ticked off at this. That they were in front of me so fast. So off I went – and with no idea about form or pacing yourself – I just wanted them behind me – so I sprinted the entire thing. Set a new school record.
    And then I threw up my breakfast. HA
    But for a girl barely in her teens and facing a second divorce on the parental homefront – the discovery that not only did I like sports – but that I was good at it; was a life saver.

  9. I was never one to be competitive. I did wonder when others seemed to be getting or having what I wanted most, if perhaps I had a competitive nature that was not being nurtured. I see it all very differently now. There were no failures, only opportunities to learn. I see those opportunities to learn as openings to something yet to be seen, uncovered or experienced. Great post…evoked some powerful reflections for me. Thank you!

  10. I firmly believe we experience things for a reason and one day, we find out that reason. You were destined to be the coach that you are and because of your experience, you are a great coach. I never played sports. I never believed I was good enough to play sports, or to do a lot of things that I ended up not doing. I now have a step daughter that feels the same way and I push her – in the sense of telling her she is strong, she is brave, she can do whatever she chooses to do. She can be successful, she can challenge herself, she can strive for excellence. We will always cheer for her, we will celebrate with her and we will deal with many losses together. This little girl just tried out for the girl’s football team and came home and said, “I was actually good!”

    1. I can’t argue with that. I appreciate your kind words, and it feels right, you know? It feels like it was the right experience to bring me right to where I am today as coach.

      You, too, can see your not-so-stellar athletic career steering you to encourage your step-daughter. “I love to watch you play,” as has been said in comments here, is the best thing a kid can ever hear from a parent.

      After that, anything’s possible.

  11. I loved this Eli. I was terrible at sports. I actually sat in the outfield making flower chains when I played softball as a child. But I ran track for 3 years in high school and I did the hurdles. I fell one time, hit the top of the hurdle and banged up my knee. But step-dad put two hurdles in the back of my grandpa’s truck and we put them in my front yard. I ran them over and over again on the grass until I wasn’t afraid of falling. I never fell again. I never thought about it until now, had no one encouraged me I probably would have given up.

    1. Glad you liked it! I guess they probably played you in left field, right?

      Love the story. You should blog about that! It’s those little steps that a coach or parent can take to make all the difference.

  12. Eli that brought tears to my eyes. I used to run track. I remember not being the fastest but I was fast on the start but just like you described I noticed other runners passing me. I never told anyone this but when I read your this it touched the quitter in me! I remember I didn’t even say “I quit” I just walked off the field and never went back. I quit because I didn’t like running, still don’t to this day. I started track because because my coach said I was fast and I was fast, but when I realized I wasn’t the fastest I thought to myself if I can’t be the best I’ll find something else I’m the best at doing. So I did. I don’t have a problem with quitting but I can see that your quitting said volumes to you and still does to this day maybe you quit so you could share how it feels to quit and wish you didn’t. Maybe you quit because it makes you a great coach today so you can reach some kid nobody else can reach. Looks like you are doing a great job! Great story. I love your writing.

    1. Thanks so much Michelle! I think about quitting often. I mean, not quitting now, but that I did then. I still wonder if it was voluntary, or just the universe reeling me in.

      What did you find that you were best in?

      1. Swimming. I love to swim and am a lap swimmer have been for years. I love when I get into that flow and it’s just be in my water heaven breathing and swimming. The whole world fades away. Plus it’s a great work out! Have a super day and weekend!

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