Thrive On Challenge Guest Article from Shane Sowden
“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.”—Wilma Rudolp
“I’m really proud of you,” I said, as we drove home from the ball diamond for the last time that season. “Do you know what I enjoyed the most about watching you play this season?”
“What?” answered my son, quietly and sadly, from the backseat of our minivan.
“I loved seeing you play with enthusiasm at every game and every practice all season. I loved seeing you hustle on every play, whether you were batting or in the field. I loved seeing you encourage and cheer on your teammates, even after the disappointment when you struck out. It made me proud when your coaches told me how much they enjoyed coaching you and that you were one of the kids who made it worth volunteering to coach. I really enjoyed watching you play and compete this year, and I’m glad you had a lot of fun.”
I patiently waited for a response from the backseat as we drove home, but never got one.
The bases were loaded. Two out. Down by three. My 7-year-old stepped up to the plate with his team’s season on the line. If they won, they’d move on to the championship game. Lose, and the season was over. Hudson was so excited to play that night, convinced his team was going to win and move on to the championship game. After a few pitches, my son connected and hit a hard ground ball to the second baseman. As the ball rolled towards the second baseman, I quietly hoped he’d make an error, but he didn’t. He picked up the ball and threw my son out at first base. Game over.
As I made my way over to the team’s dugout, the coaches gathered all the players together for one last huddle. After a few minutes, the team meeting was finished, and my son grabbed his bag and started to walk towards me. As he approached, I got ready to hand him the thank-you cards he’d made for his coaches, but he didn’t see me reach out to give him the cards. He was walking towards me with his head down, clearly trying to hold in his emotions. As he got closer, he raised his hand to his eyes to wipe away tears. There were lots of people around, and he was embarrassed that others might see him crying. Instead of grabbing the cards, he simply placed his head on my hip, and I put my arms around him.
After a few moments, he was able to compose himself and walked towards his coaches to thank them for the season, but as he handed them the cards, he was unable to utter the words “thank you”. Each time he tried, he choked on his words and more tears started to form in his eyes. His coaches thanked him for the gifts and told him how much they’d enjoyed coaching him that season. On the walk to the van to head home, I could sense the continuous buildup of emotion within my son, like a dam ready to burst. It was only as he slid into the seat that the dam burst, his emotions spilling over.
W.I.N.—What’s Important Now?
When we arrived home, Hudson changed as I prepared him a snack. The look of disappointment was still on his face as he sat at the kitchen table.
“Hudson, do you remember what I’ve been telling you all season? What is the most important thing to focus on each time you practice or play a game?” I asked.
“Focus on what I can control.”
Surprised by the quick answer, I responded, “And what is in your control each time you play?”
“My effort and my attitude, Dad.”
“Exactly,” I said with excitement. “Did you try your best every time you played this season?”
“Did you listen respectfully to your coaches all season?”
“Were you a good teammate by encouraging and cheering on your teammates each game?”
“Did you improve and have fun this season?”
“Can you control the final outcome of the game?”
“Well, then, I think you had a very successful season. I know losing is never fun, but I am extremely proud of you, and I can’t wait to watch you play again next spring.”
As my son finished his snack, we played a card game for a little while before it was time to go to bed.
I hadn’t expected the wave of emotions from Hudson that night, but I found myself grateful for the opportunity to connect with my son. I was able to practice the acronym “W.I.N.”, which stands for What’s Important Now?. What was most important in that moment was to show my son empathy, love, and support, and to ask some great questions. It was difficult seeing my son struggle with his disappointment, but it was a wonderful experience having the opportunity to talk and connect with him during the hours after the loss. As a former college athlete and current college coach, I am well aware of the power and influence sports can have on young people. Youth sports have the ability to not only build up young athletes but also tear them down. As my three sons participate in youth sports, my main concern is who they are becoming, rather than whether they are winning or are the best player. I love seeing my kids succeed and do well when they play, but my main desire is to see my boys grow in character and discipline. This will not only help them succeed in sports, but also in life.
Parenting is difficult. As a father, I am learning to take advantage of the unscripted, unexpected opportunities in our everyday lives to connect and teach my boys important life lessons. That summer day with my 7-year-old was one of the unexpected moments. What started out as just another little league game turned into an unexpected opportunity to connect with my son on a deeper level. I had the opportunity to win the moment by taking a step back and asking myself, “What is the most important message I want my son to learn?”. My hope and prayer is that this will be the first of many opportunities to have similar conversations with my sons.
–Shane Sowden is the Men’s Basketball Coach at Briercrest College in Canada