Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sometimes the Reward IS in Playing Your Best

There are times in sport when the reward of participating in a hard-fought contest goes well beyond who wins or loses. The prize won is a deep sense of personal fulfillment based on the knowledge that you prepared and played to the best of your ability.

I learned this lesson at an early age when I played my good friend (also named Jeff) for our town’s youth badminton championship. In our age group, Jeff was probably the town’s best athlete, talented in all sports. Although not as athletic or physically mature as Jeff, my ability was close to his.

Our match that day was well-played from the beginning. Each point was closely contested. Unforced errors were few and far between. As the match progressed,
Jeff Abell; Jack Hesslink; me
the quality of our play seemed to continually reach new heights. We each ran down the other’s shot, making one outstanding save after another. We split the first two games, and took turns winning points well into the deciding game. But in the end, Jeff made one or two better plays to claim the championship.

As the town’s recreation supervisor presented us with our trophies, he told us that he had never seen a better competition at our age. Both Jeff and I knew how well we had played - and how each of us had brought out the best in the other. Even years later, when I came to have an edge on Jeff in high school athletics, we occasionally made reference to that special, fulfilling moment when we were young boys.

If you only equate success in sports to winning, and base your self-esteem on this value, you will inevitably sacrifice the greater rewards that come from playing sports. Striving to win is important—it’s the ultimate real world measure of your preparation and play. But if you see winning and losing only in absolute terms, and not relative to you and your team’s quality of play and effort, you will lose out on countless moments of joy that sports can provide.

Everybody likes to win, and you should try your best to achieve this result. But sometimes being part of a great contest, or performing to the best of your abilities, is deeply satisfying in and of itself.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Everyone Fails Redux

Yesterday, the Nebraska Cornhuskers basketball team lost to Oklahoma State. It was a close contest with Nebraska losing by one, failing to convert a basket at the end of the game that would have won it.

I took a special interest in the game because Nebraska’s senior point guard, Lance Jeter, played high school basketball at Beaver Falls, PA—a league opponent of our local team (Quaker Valley).

As a junior in 2005, Jeter helped Beaver Falls win WPIAL and PIAA (State) championships. In the class AA title game, he banked in a 30 foot shot at the buzzer in the third overtime to give Beaver Falls a 79-78 victory over Aliquippa. He also had made a long 3-pointer at the end of regulation to tie the game. A few weeks later, he beat Aliquippa with two free throws in the PIAA semifinals.

In 2006 when Lance was a senior at Beaver Falls, he was the WPIAL high school athlete of the year.  (Boy's High School Athlete of the Year: Lance Jeter) Along the way, he beat an excellent Quaker Valley team in the PIAA semifinal, converting a free throw with 3.2 seconds left to give Beaver Falls a 71-70 victory. (Beaver Falls guard does it again)

As his high school coach said at the time, “When the game is on the line, the ball seems to find its way into his hands, and every time the kid comes through.”

But not yesterday. With 16 seconds left, Nebraska got the ball into Lance’s hands. After a teammate set a screen to free him, Lance drove across the lane. As he started to turn toward the basket, he tripped over the feet of his opponent and fell to the court, losing possession to an Oklahoma St. player.

Despite all of his prior successes and last minute heroics, Lance failed.

I suspect Lance will always remember this moment. On occasion, he’ll probably feel that unique twinge of regret that comes from an opportunity lost.

But I also suspect that Lance realizes that everyone fails. And that he also knows the best players fearlessly want the ball in their hands at the end of the game.

Congratulations Lance on an excellent career at Nebraska.