Life Lessons From Sports

I must confess to my weakness in loving to watch Division I football (basketball, not so much), despite the fact that I am fully aware that what I am watching has nothing whatever to do with education and is almost certainly antithetical to the goals of education.

Having said that, I was watching the Army/Navy game on Saturday, December 8th when I was witness to one of those rare moments when one begins to think that there may be some sort of justification for sports in our colleges — even at that level. And I am aware that the service academies are a special case of Division I sports since those men and women are not vying for a spot on a professional sports team roster.

Army was working its way down field with just over a minute to play in the game, behind by 4 points, They had been hanging on to a 3 point lead until just minutes before when Navy scored a touchdown and took the lead. Now they were in Navy’s “red zone” on their way to a score. It appeared as though Army might be about to beat Navy for the first time in ten years. Not only has Navy dominated Army during that time, they have usually trounced their arch-enemies from the banks of the Hudson river. But this time it appeared things would work our for the Black Knights. Not so.

The Army quarterback muffed a hand-off to his halfback and the resulting fumble allowed Navy to run out the clock. The Army quarterback sat on the sidelines, head in hands, sobbing uncontrollably — which teaches us two things: (1) American TV loves to see car crashes, horrible hits, and grown men cry (the cameras lingered long and close to the sobbing man), and (2) important lessons can be learned from sports. Life isn’t always about winning; it’s also about losing — and when we lose we need to figure out how to deal with it. And in learning how to deal with we grow.

These are important lessons — trite as they may seem — especially in a culture where everyone is told he or she is a winner and there are no losers. Those lessons, repeated often in school and at home, on the TV, in songs, and in books on the shelves, have convinced us all that we deserve only the best. Ironically, this attitude leads to frustration and disillusionment when the person so informed comes face to face with reality. It can even lead to violence we are told. This is why sports are still very important in this culture: for the most part they are more honest than the rest of what is going on. There are winners and there are losers. The losers have to learn to “suck it up”  and move on.

Because of this, those who would turn sports into just another exercise in self-esteem should shut up and find honest work. The trend in kids’ sports to keep no score and award all participants a trophy of some sort is dishonest. It’s more of the same old Bullshit. In team sports kids learn about cooperation and working hard to achieve a goal. There are rules and penalties for breaking the rules. Kids also learn about competition which is perhaps not a good thing in itself (the jury’s out on that topic), but it is the way of this world. And if kids don’t learn about competition early on and also learn that winners are rewarded and losers are not, they will eventually come face to face with the harsh reality of the workplace and the world “out there” where that’s simply the way things are. And that can be traumatic.

In the real world we do lose occasionally and hopefully we learn from those losses. That’s how people grow. To maintain the fiction that everyone is a winner and there are no losers is telling kids lies that will hurt them deeply later on when they learn real-life lessons.  Sports are one of the few places left where kids can find out for themselves what life will be like later on, though they do need reminding that these are only games (as do we all).

9 thoughts on “Life Lessons From Sports

  1. Once again you have connected me with a part of the culture I have left behind, and I am sure this poor quarterback’s sorrow will be shown on ‘playback’ forEVER and ever. I have empathy for him, I suppose that’s why I always preferred sports like track that challenged my personal best, and not sports that put me in that ‘it’s all up to you’ moment of triumph or loss. How incongruent to be a leader/quarterback and still have such a sensitive soul.

    I totally agree with all that you share in this post, and I am baffled – children’s sports sometimes have no winners and losers? I sigh. It goes back to that theme of entitlement without earning the reward! How does one hone the edge and become the best one can be without playing others who are better? Without having tough competition, we never push ourselves toward excellence, and it’s our destiny to be the absolute best we can be.


    • Absolutely. When I coached tennis I always sought the toughest competition I could find. We would never improve if we kept playing weaker opponents — though it might be an ego-boost! (It’s good to see you still have electricity!!)


      • hey
        i returned home this morning after being on the road since friday. there’s a story about the sage of lost luggage in the future.. my friends are still w/o their luggage that was left behind compliments of delta airlines last thursday!
        i was pleased to find electricity working well when i returned!

  2. Hugh, this is well done and well said. Thanks. There is no better teacher than failure. Success cannot teach you as much. Coach K at Duke had a very early team that a Ralph Sampson led team beat by over 40 points in the ACC Tournament. When a Duke booster made a toast at a year-end party saying may we forget this loss, Coach K stopped him and said “No, here is to never forgetting this loss.” Life is a competition – you are competing for good college classes and times, you are competing for jobs, you are competing for good assignments to learn and grow from at the job and you are competing for new clients to pay the bills. I have found my competition to be good at what they do, so it is a matter of working hard, doing your best, being timely and putting your best foot forward. Again, great post. BTG

  3. I too watch Division I sports. Lorna and I are dedicated Oregon Duck fans. Watching the Army/Navy game, however, and the antics of the two student bodies, I am reminded of an observation of the son of our classmate, Bill Tilles, who attended the Naval Academy merely because one of his high school football coaches had a connection with the coach there. He left after two years, opining that the place took 18 year-old young men and made 22 year old boys out of them and that he had been a boy long enough. He went on to attend Hopkins majoring in electrical engineering and made it onto the roster of superior academic athletes. He currently works for Northrop Grumman.

  4. it’s ironic that i pulled this post back up when basketball madness is most likely sweeping the country (i don’t tune in much b/c of slow internet).. i’m surprised that you don’t enjoy basketball as much as football!

    i’m here b/c barb and i were discussing your blog; i had just read most of today’s blog to her , and i told her how you keep me informed on sundry topics, like children’s sports and how some leagues don’t keep score, etc.

    sha-zaham! that kicked off a passionate response, and she addressed how some coaches play only the best athletes while the others sit on the bench or how some parents get so irate, press their children beyond normal measures to win at all costs, etc…. i knew that – at that moment – she’d not see it any other way than that of a grandmother who had witnessed her grandson who warmed the bench although he was a talented player…

    the reason for this comment is not about the above; it’s to let you know that when i did a search on your page for ‘children sports,’ nothing came up. ‘sports’ and nothing came up. every search word/words i typed in came back with nothing! perhaps it’s the slow internet, but i think there’s a bug on your search page!

    maybe after the holidays are finished, you can place a few categories on the side bar so that we can browse without guessing what topic is in the archives!

    enjoy your family!

    • I had a younger son who was late to develop his coordination and who sat the bench a lot while his older brother captained the team. That had to be tough on the poor kid! (You did figure out how to do the search, no?)


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