Headlines: Winning Like a Loser (and Losing Like a Winner)

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Each week, the Christ and Culture podcast features a segment called "Headlines," in which we look at some aspect of the headlines from a Christian perspective. This article is adapted from episode 135.

What can sports teach us about success and failure?

My oldest son just played his last game of middle school football. His first season they did not lose a game. The second season they only won one game. Over the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with him about how sports teach us about life. You can win like a loser, or you can lose like a winner. Sports also teach us how to approach success and failure in both an individual and community context.

What can sports teach us on an individual level about winning and losing?

Whether it is a team or an individual sport, sports demand perseverance and grit to be successful. Of course, we don’t have to look very hard to think about the idolatry that is built into that mindset and can easily lead us in the wrong direction. But, when we maintain a Christian perspective, sports train us to dedicate our lives towards a certain goal. And Paul regularly urged his readers through sports metaphors—the athlete, the runner, the person pursuing the trophy—to strain forward towards Christlikeness. These are directional metaphors that urge us to live the Way of Jesus, and at their best, sports provide a laboratory for life lessons of success and failure in life, and how to respond.

Sports also teach us how success is not possible without failure. I think about—of all people—Michael Jordan. When you hear him talk about success, he cannot talk about his own success without first acknowledging his failures — how many end-of-game shots he missed or how he got cut from the varsity team in the 10th grade.

What do you think are the applications for parents and their kids as they are thinking through involvement in sports?

Our kids need to learn those lessons. In the Quinn family, our kids must show us that they truly want to play before we sign them up for any kind of a sports league. Before we commit our whole family to that basketball or soccer or baseball schedule with all the practices and games, they have to demonstrate buy-in and a willingness to work for it. Right now, we’re in basketball season with my 11- and 7-year-olds. I told them that if we were going to sign them up, then they must practice every day. It’s not because I expect them to be NBA stars but because committing to a team requires that they put in the work outside of when the coach is blowing the whistle. Also, they have had to learn how to deal with defeat and grow beyond that. After you have gotten beaten by teams you weren’t supposed to lose to, then you have to go back home and deal with your disappointment and embarrassment before you get back on the court.  Even though they’re hard for parents and players, these are good and formative experiences for us and our kids.

When we maintain a Christian perspective, sports train us to dedicate our lives towards a certain goal.

What can sports teach us on a community level about winning and losing?

When it comes to the community aspect of winning and losing in sports, what is really interesting right now is all the coaches who lost their jobs at the end of football season. For example, the Carolina Panthers fired Frank Reich after only 11 games because of their abysmal start. On the other end of the spectrum, even legacy coach Bill Belichick was forced out of the Patriots organization after a few dismal seasons without Tom Brady. Of course, you can also talk about all the college coaches as well who are on the chopping block. I think the lesson to consider here is that in our on-demand culture we’ve lost the patience to lose.

Looking back, some of the football communities I grew up in helpfully modeled this patience to endure defeat. I remember growing up in Mississippi, and one of the coaches of Mississippi State was Jackie Sherrill. He didn’t win championships every season. He had some bad seasons, and there were sometimes several seasons in a row that were tough. But people in the community had the patience to recognize him as “our coach” and be proud of him.  I’m not suggesting that team keep a coach for a long time without improved performance. But, it might take more than 11 games to turn around a program. And there are a lot of important lessons to learn during the down years.

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Benjamin Quinn

Associate Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture

Dr. Quinn is an Associate Professor of Theology and History of Ideas. He also serves as the Associate Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. He is the author of Christ, the Way: Augustine's Theology of Wisdom (2022), Walking in God's Wisdom (2021), and the co-author of Every Waking Hour (2016).

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