Life’s training ground

In this first week of school, don’t neglect the arena where much of life’s purest lessons are honed

Take out a pencil and paper.

 (Summer is officially over…..)

Put your hand-held computers, which double as a communication device, away.

 (No cell phones? This really feels like school now.)

At the top, write out the winner of last year’s Super Bowl. 

Next, record the last World Cup champion. 

(There better be extra credit….I don’t know any of these…..)

Extra credit:

(Oh good!)

 name any player from that team. 

(crickets)

Finally, jot down the MVP of the 2012 NFL season. 

Oh, wait…

(Ughh. I hate teachers like this….)

… if you play high school sports in Colorado, write the name of the state champion – individual or team – from three years ago. 

Now, before you turn it in, 

(When is this due?)

 I want to console your spirit in advance of any potential whining 

(How did he know I was about to blurt, “When am I ever going to need to use this?”) 

by letting you in on a secret: You will use this someday later in life. Even if you become a Youtuber. 

When the curtain closed on the Tokyo Olympics last week, most of us were admittedly asleep in the theatre. Ordinarily, our hearts become enraptured by the rich collective investment and festive jubilation of this special quadrennial. The sheer spectacle – lights, uniforms, stadiums, bodies – captures our attention. The “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” instinctively draws us near. An innate yet mysterious motivating force to unify around something – finally – as a nation, a culture, a people, and a tribe, touches all in the presence of those five hollowed rings. Society once fostered this aura of communal enjoyment regarding the Olympiad; it used to be routine for families to gather each night around their television every four years, for two weeks straight, experiencing the gamut of  heart-wrenching stories and fascinating drama –  together. 

While ample reminders of our current state of affairs –  inconsistent masking, spotty social distancing, and at times irrational, even strange, health protocols – abounded, the more cheerful feelings which the previous paragraph was dedicated to were notably absent in the Tokyo rendition of the Games. TV ratings were down. Internet trolls were up. If only the planning committee for Tokyo 2020 (just go with it….we know it’s 2021…but, you have to admit, you never really wanted 2020 to end, did you?) could have monetized the comment sections of media outlets, lathered in their exorbitant aggregate of complaints and vitriol and buttered with critiques and detestations of every marquee athletes’ on and off-the-field statements.

 “I guess the Olympics are ruined, too,” hung a distraught thought bubble, precariously loitering somewhere between my brain, my mouth, and my heart as the only logical conclusion to what I witnessed over 17 days of action. 

Then, I remembered how I am a writer. Deeper meaning, reveal thyself. 

Perhaps Tokyo’s stark actualization of predictably poor broadcasts, drab, empty stadiums, and a globally  apathetic disposition from viewers was a poignant reminder of a much greater reality: 

To bask in the glory of victory is a fleeting enterprise. It always was, even for those whose global sporting events we all did tune into.

Maybe this is a good time to ask how everyone did on my pop quiz. 

Sports is not about outcome, but outcome is necessary. In an earlier column, I extrapolated on this idea throughout my scathing words directed at the men’s high jump competition (not the athletes, but the contest itself), explaining the impactful distinction between ‘true competition’ and de-competition. Camaraderie is baked into true competition, while the essential nature of de-competition is conquest. True competition, embodying its latin root word competere (which means “to strive together”) is characterized by two parties collectively striving towards a common goal: excellence – the maximizing of each others’ potential. Through the mutual pursuit of being the best version of oneself, true competitors elevate each other to an otherwise impossible level. Having a winner is important – not because winning is important – but because the goal of winning fosters true competition, and true competition leads to flourishing individuals and teams. 

Flourishing individuals and teams can, as my alma mater so eloquently states in their mission statement, “influence the affairs of the world.” Ultimately, this is what sports is actually about. Sport is the place where young people properly define true success and hone the skills necessary to pursue it. This is the only foundation for any coaches’ claim of sports or extracurriculars as having a seat at the table of the institution of education. If anyone desires to preach to the community, the NCAA, or the local school board to support athletics, it better be on these premises. Please note, the title of my column is only applicable to this particular philosophy of sport. I know the athletic field is NOT where math content is taught, but it is where the skills necessary to master the content – and any other future content – are honed.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you view it), my thesis is only relevant if coaches, teachers, and other leaders define true success properly, and consequently utilize competition as the structurally sound arena for pursuing it. (Pass over the phrase ‘structurally sound’ at your own peril – fairness, order, rules, and justice are essential components to the foundation – not the insulation – of competition.)  John Wooden, a man who perhaps experienced more outcome-based success than any other athlete and coach, but somehow managed to never say the word ‘win’ in his locker room pregame speeches, defined success sufficiently, stating, “(Success) is the peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you gave 100% effort to do the best of which you’re capable.” 

As someone whose training volume (notice the avoidance of the word ‘level’) rivals Olympians, but also lives and walks with the rest of us mere mortals – working a full-time job, taking care of children (soon; circle back to me on the right to the phrase ‘volume rivals Olympians’ in about a month, I guess), and stubbing my toe on the dog’s chew toy in the middle of a strewn living room –  I can honestly say I’ve both believed and embraced Wooden’s words while simultaneously wishing and wondering if hanging the ethereal gold medal around my neck would solve all of my problems

Tokyo reminded me that it wouldn’t. Imagine if your whole life had been centered on making it to the Olympics, and that was the one fate gave you. The one no one watched. The one no one cared about. Would it make the arduous athletic journey required to arrive at that point … pointless? If recognition or legacy had been the chief concern, and if the end goal had been simply glory and fame, well, maybe we’ve already answered the question at hand. Scroll back to #3 on your list. Ask …. Adrian Peterson (I only know the 2012 MVP because he was a Minnesota Viking….cheating, I know) what he thinks …  

These Olympics served as a reminder of a most impactful truth: the epilogue to a lifetime of training and racing, striving and grinding, losing and winning, never culminates with the view from the top of a podium – even if you are fortunate enough to get there, and even if a crowd is present to laud your lunge up said secular pinnacle. The true apotheosis of sport – for both the Olympic champion and the masterblaster training for the local 5k –  is the realization and utilization of the game, which is just a game, to develop one’s ability to pursue true success, in the most Woodenian sense of the word. 

As a former member of the prestigious Concordia Band and also the captain and MVP of the cross country and track teams, I understand the value of extracurricular activities, whether it is sports or music or something else. It isn’t about the trophies, even though they feel great. It isn’t about the applause, the ceremonies, or the speeches, though the attention can feel validating. It isn’t about the honor rolls, All-American statuses, all-state certificates, or the halls-of-fame, though these carrots surely motivate. It isn’t even about the Olympic medals. It is, and always will be, about using the game or the song as a vehicle for fashioning the best version of you possible. 

How can I so emphatically make such a foundational claim? 

Because if you know how to apply goal setting, discipline, work ethic, teamwork, time management, and introspective analysis to being the best mountain biker, point guard, or goalie you can be, you’ll be able to do the same when it comes to being the best politician, too (and we could use help in that department). And if you learn to overcome tragedy, defeat, loss, and the inevitable trials of any myriad of difficulties inherent in the pursuit of, yes, winning, then I guarantee you, you will be able to do the same in life. Even if you are a Youtuber. 

Heck, if that’s what you want to do, be the goldarn best Youtuber you can.

Class is over. Pass your pa— on second thought, don’t turn in those sheets of paper to me. Hold onto them. I told you what you learned today would be used later in life.

Pierre de Courbertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, once said, “The important thing in life is not to triumph, but to compete.” 

I wish he had added this: The important thing about competing is learning what it means to triumph.

May the coaches, leaders, and teachers of our young people ponder this as they strive to successfully bring up the next generation with all of the tools necessary to thrive in 2021 … and beyond.

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