This year, I volunteered to coach my son’s Little League team. Like all leagues, there are a few great players, several pretty good players, and a lot of kids who just want to be on the ball field. In years past, there would have been even more great players, but most of them have chosen to forgo their neighborhood Little League in favor of select teams. More on that later.
To ensure equality among the teams, tryouts are held as well as a draft. Managers are required to attend the tryouts and then draft in an order that ensures each team has access to an equal number of talented players. “It’s all about the kids,” so this keeps things fair.
But behind the scenes, inevitable maneuvering and deal-making hinders the prospects for fairness. For example, it might be agreed by some to essentially stack one team with the best players so they can dominate the season and have the best chance to win at the district level. The winner of each league, you see, competes for the district championship. And even though the championship tournament is only a handful of games compared to the 20 or so during the regular season, winning there means more than any benefits of a good regular season.
At least, that is what some believe. So basically, the regular season—the only time that most of the kids on the diamond will experience baseball at all—can become a tool for elite ballplayers to hone their skills and little else.
How did we go from striving to create a great experience for kids to merely using those same kids as fodder for the best kids? Because we have bought the nasty myth that the only important number in sports is how many times you win it all.
Where This Attitude Comes From
This starts at the top, of course. Even a Hall of Fame player’s reputation will always be diminished if he/she did not win it all. Likewise, an average player on good teams who has rings will see his reputation significantly enhanced. Tyronn Lue, a very average player for the Lakers, picked up a few rings during the Shaq and Kobe era. Yesterday, I saw that this is part of what gives him “championship experience.” (Well, that and LeBron’s insane 3-1 comeback over the 2016 Warriors.) Charles Barkley, Ted Williams, and Dan Marino are all-time greats. But their careers will always be assessed as players without championships.
Terry Bradshaw, my hometown’s hero, won Four Super Bowls. He must have been a great quarterback, right? But check out his career TD to INT ratio: 212-210! Sure, he was clutch in big moments and I don’t take anything away from him. But he is elevated for the Super Bowl wins, not ho-hum stats in “meaningless” games.
Winning is why we play the game. Every team should be trying to win. That is why teams exist. A sport deserves your best and so does the other team.
And yet, for most of us, high school, college, and certainly professional athletics are not a possibility. So, for the rest of us, sports should be something that takes advantage of their unique offering of experience. You know, lessons about sportsmanship, trying your hardest, building up your teammates, and learning to live with failure, which happens more often than not in sports and all-too-often in life as well.
When a “championship or bust” mentality takes hold—and it has—it sucks a lot of the joy out of sports at all levels. It is not exactly news to report that Kevin Durant’s joining the Warriors effectively has taken all of the drama out of the NBA for two years. Only a recent calf strain has given casual fans a reason to hope someone other than the Warriors will have a chance.
And why did Durant join a team with a 2-time MVP and a record 73-win season in the books? Because he was on the fast track to being another regular season hero who would retire with no rings. Remember the Heat before them, and the Celtics Super Team before them? Players are willing to sacrifice competitiveness for something close to a guaranteed championship. That’s great for them, but bad for the rest of us, and the by-product is an insistence that winning championships is the only goal worth achieving.
Neighborhood Little Leagues, once a staple of many American boys’ summer, are being drained of talent as select teams are recruiting talent to play “real” baseball. For a talented player to slum it with kids who can’t hit is practically out of fashion for many ballplayers. So much for camaraderie and sportsmanship. And parents with dollar signs in their eyes don’t want their children to lose out on opportunities to learn from real coaches and play truly competitive games against the best. Hanging with the neighborhood dad who’s volunteering to coach just isn’t good enough in the era of $340 million contracts. So even at the neighborhood level, old fashioned baseball is changing right before our eyes.
Winning at the Cost of Gratitude
The reality is that life is full of failure. We forget how easy it can be to lose everything, to utterly fail in life. To earn a living, raise children, and pay your bills is a win! It’s okay if your car dealership is not the top-rated, if your vacation was not the most spectacular, and if your Little League took third place. So what? Is life only worth living if we can have our “best life now?”
If there is not a contentment with the mean (the place where most of us, by definition, will land), there will only be a devastation with failure.
So what do we do to change course? We begin by being grateful for what we have rather than coveting what others possess, including our life’s version of championship rings and trophies. We discipline our hearts and minds to enjoy the process of playing, learning, and maintaining what we have. There is no shame in that. And we learn to assess a person or event or skill in his or it’s totality. Can we be better than only judging others and ourselves by the standard of championships?
Somewhere between settling for mediocrity and cheating yourself and others from the joy of the process is where we want to land. It starts by ensuring that every Little League team has the same number of great players and struggling beginners. And it ends when adults—in whatever profession—enjoy what they do while they do it and learn to accept that winning it all isn’t the only standard of success that matters.