The wag on “Get Up!” — a weekly sports show on ESPN — put it best when he said: “Failure is a good thing. It teaches us valuable lessons.”

The topic surrounded the recent loss of a football team that had been sailing along beating their opponents fairly easily. They lost the most recent game and the question for the table was weather or not this might be a good thing in the long run. It was generally accepted that it would in fact be a good thing as it would make the losing team more determined and work harder to avoid losses in the future. Indeed, it is a maxim — if not an axiom — in sports that losing can be the best thing for a team that begins to feel it is invincible.

This is one of the reasons why sports is so important a part of our culture, since sports teach important life-lessons. As a whole, we tend to think that losing is the worst thing that can happen. In our schools, for example, we hear that “no child should be left behind,” and I even had a colleague years ago who refused to give grades to his students because it would mean that some would fail. As you can imagine, students flocked to his classes and did absolutely nothing in order to simply be passed along — and get valuable college credit.

But the disparity between the sports axiom and the common notion in the schools (and in the home) regarding failure or success is worthy of thought. I maintain that the sports world knows what it is talking about and the rest of us should simply shut up: failure can be a good thing. It most often is as most of us would attest if we are honest.

Years ago I wrote a post about George Washington who reflected on his losses late in his life — the experience with Braddock in the French and Indian wars, for example — and insisted that they were the most important lessons he learned and steeled him later in life for future disappointments and losses and made him able to win out in the end.

So let it be agreed: failure can be a good thing. Let the kids lose and hope they learn from those losses and become future winners. Because, like it or not, there are winners and there are losers in life.


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).

Life Lessons

I wrote a blog recently about Phil Mickelson and the admirable things he is doing with his money to help those in need. In passing, I made reference to “The First Tee,” a charity it has become fashionable for obscenely wealthy golf pros to support — in their way. To be sure, one should applaud any attempt to help others, but a charity that is designed to teach young people how to play golf seems to be nothing more nor less than an excuse to promote golf, maybe have a photo-op, and take a tax break in the process. To be sure, the “charity” also claims to teach “life lessons” and that’s when things get interesting. Consider the following description of the charity.

The First Tee curriculum focuses on teaching character education and it’s “Nine Core Values” (honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment). The First Tee chapters use a teaching curriculum developed by experts in the field of positive youth development, and delivered by coaches. Through this experience, participants learn to transfer the values of golf to everyday life.

I have no idea what an “expert in the field of positive youth development” is, but let that pass. The nine “core values” that are “delivered by coaches” are certainly worthy values. But one must wonder aloud why it falls to coaches to teach “character education” when that would appear to be the job of parents, if “character education” is what I think it is — the phrase is somewhat opaque.

True, during recent years the job of teaching virtue has been shunted onto teachers and coaches because apparently the kids’ parents are too busy “making a living” to spend time raising their own children. They leave that to teachers and TV — and apparently to coaches as well. I will set aside the discussion of whether or not it is even possible for anyone except those in the immediate family to teach virtue (which Socrates insisted could not be taught at all, by the way). But the notion that it is the job of sports coaches to teach “core values” and “character” is absurd. Coaches teach athletes how to perform at a high level of skill in a sport. The “life lessons” are nothing more than affirmations of lessons the kids should have learned at home. If they haven’t been learned at home, they are certainly not going to be learned on a golf course. Let’s look at an example.

One of the core values is honesty. When a player grounds his golf club in a hazard he is supposed to “fess up” and take a stroke penalty. There are cases, even at the highest levels, where golfers actually do precisely this, and it is admirable. But I would argue that any golfer who does this is an honest person and that person learned to be honest by watching the way his or her parents and/or loved ones behaved and copying that behavior. We are talking about character here, and character is molded at home at an early age — not in later years at the local Country Club. The most a sports coach can do is reinforce that behavior and applaud the child when he or she behaves in an honest way. Coaches can teach kids golf; they cannot teach “life lessons.” And this would be true for all the nine “core values.” These values must be learned at home and, at best, reinforced in school and on the golf course. This is a worthy effort, but hardly justifies the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are spent on the effort by wealthy golf professionals that might be better spent on something worthwhile — like the preservation of the earth, for example, or saving the wolves. My guess is that the golf pros like to think they are “giving back” to the game while they take a nice little tax break. That’s what made Mickelson’s charitable works so praiseworthy: they seem to be genuine and not in the least self-serving. In any event, the pros who support “The First Tee” are certainly not teaching “life lessons.”