Growing up in Wisconsin a Green Bay Packers fan, I have always of course been familiar with many quotes and nuggets of wisdom from legendary coach, Vince Lombardi. Lombardi quotes are part of the vernacular of Wisconsin, and are treated with a reverence that to an outsider must elicit a reaction not unlike the one Charlton Heston had in Planet of the Apes when Dr. Zaius and his ilk kept talking about the Sacred Scrolls.
Author’s note: I’m feeling pretty good about somehow jamming both a Green Bay Packers AND Planet of the Apes reference in the same sentence. Part of me feels like I should just mic drop and close this post right now. Of course, there WAS something I wanted to write about here, so I guess I shall press on.
Everyone thinks of “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” from Lombardi, but the truth is that was a quote he was never super comfortable with. It does add to the legend of this relentless competitor, but he later amended it to say that “the will to win is the only thing.” But Lombardi-wise, the quote that has always resonated most with me is “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”
A framed card with that quote was on the wall in Henry’s bedroom until we redecorated it about a year ago, and now it has a new home on my office desk. I think about it often.
And boy I was thinking about it this past weekend. As I wrote in an earlier post, I’ve been coaching Amelia’s soccer team for about a year now. It’s a really fun group of kids and I absolutely love their passion, their sense of fun, and THEIR will to win. They work hard and play their hearts out every week. Every week the other coaches and I are super proud of the work they’re doing and the progress they are making.
But unfortunately, the one thing we DON’T have are wins. Going back to last season, we are on a pretty solid losing streak at this point. Kids and coaches alike have had an amazing attitutde about it. It really ISN’T about winning at this level, it is about playing together and putting it out all out there on the field. That being said, winning sometimes is also pretty nice.
The first few games this season, it was pretty easy to keep the kids’ spirits buoyed. We focused on the positive, joked around left with a “we’ll get ’em next time” attitude. But this week, the cracks were definitely starting to show and you could see some disappointment creep into the kids’ eyes.
As luck would have it, we were playing the equivalent of the Lombardi Packers this week. This team has been together for years and has steamrolled us a few times. But even knowing that, for much of the first half, the kids were lights-out. They played the best soccer I’d ever seen them play. They were fast and on point. Amelia was playing defense and together with her cohorts back there, the ball never got close to the goal.
Until it did. The other team scored one late in the first half. We all shook it off and got back out, but as it has in other weeks, suddenly one goal led to two, led to five and on and on. Everyone fought on, and honestly, all the play happening between the goals was great. Our kids were passing and defending and doing well, but every time we got in scoring position we missed, and every time the other team did, it was dead on.
I’ll be honest, I don’t even know how many goals they scored on us. We had one, and several close calls, but obviously it translated into yet another loss for our crew. After the game, we coaches all told our kids how great they did and how hard they fought. They really did. From the bottom of my heart I loved what I saw our team do out there. But reality also was that it was another loss, and I know it’s wearing on the kids. It’s heavy for us coaches, too.
It does get hard to keep the energy and enthusiasm up when you feel like you’re doing all the work, making all the right moves and things just aren’t coming out the way you want. I’m not immune, either. For the most part in this league I’ve been pretty zen with the wins and losses, but like the kids out there, it starts to feel like fate is against you when you play well and wheels still come off. I gave lots of support and enthusiasm to those kids after the game because I really do admire them. It’s hard to keep up a good attitude in the face of defeat, but they do.
Going home, I was absolutely in a more downtrodden mood than Amelia was. She was bummed about losing, sure, but also proud of what she and her teammates did out there. As she should be! I wanted to take a page from that and practice what I preach to the kids, being proud of the effort and improvement. But I think as a grown up these moments are triggering because we all have those things in our lives that feel like we keep hitting our heads against the same brick wall over and over again. That no matter how much we try, we still struggle in some way to ever get that win.
It can be hard to stay motivated when it feels like nothing works. I’ve felt that in life and on the soccer field. But this is one of those times I have to turn to that Lombardi quote. As corny as it might sound, there is significant wisdom there. It is the strength that we gain coping with defeat that leads us onto victory.
After the game we grabbed lunch, and I was still processing all that as we ate. Erin and I had ordered some Chinese takeout and there were some fortune cookies laying around, so Henry had one for dessert. He asked me to read the fortune. It was “Adversity is the prosperity of the great.”
So while my hot and sour soup was really tasty, it turned out that the best part of my lunch was that bit of wisdom. That’s when I realized how important the lessons all of us are learning on the field are. Whether kids or grownups, we all get caught up in outcomes, and it’s easy to lose our way. Learning to deal with winning is a cinch. Learning to stay positive, keep working and keep trying in the face of defeat is HARD.
There are plenty of weeks when I wake up on Saturday mornings and don’t particularly feel like putting the out the energy to coach. But the truth is I know I’m there, both for me and for those kids. I’m learning something about staying positive and working through adversity to get to greatness. The kids are learning how to learn, play and put effort into their team and their game, and stay positive even when things don’t go their way.
I know this is sports, and more than that, it’s 9-year-old, non-competitive kids sports. Obviously wins and losses don’t end up meaning so much, and a lot of the kids are just as excited for snacks after the game as they are for playing at all. But I think the experience applies in a much broader sense. There are times when even though we do everything we’re supposed to and put our effort into it, things don’t go our way.
What’s important to understand is that none of that minimizes the value of the work we’ve done or who we are. It’s an outcome, and you know what? Outcomes can change.
I’m so proud of our kids. I am lucky to work with two other great coaches who care about those kids just as much as I do. We all want to win, but we also know that effort is its own reward. No matter what the outcome is next week, I’m going in with as much positive spirit as our players have. As adults, we get much more prone to getting run down by hitting that brick wall. On the field and in my life, I’m trying to take inspiration from my team and remember that putting yourself out there and doing the work is ultimately its own reward.
All that said, next week I am going to wear my lucky socks.