This familiar quote has haunted me throughout all my years of coaching, and I suspect I am not alone. In case you are reading this and have no idea, where this quote came from let me give you a little background. The saying “Winning isn’t Everything…it’s the Only thing” has for over 45 years been attributed to the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers football team, the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named; the great Vince Lombardi. News flash: he never said it; what he did say is “winning isn’t everything -but wanting to win is.” The misquote comes from a Hollywood production starring John Wayne and Donna Reed, titled “Trouble Along the Way” (Warner Brothers 1953) that was filmed in black and white and was a story in which Wayne plays a coach and a single parent with a daughter at a private Catholic college and Donna Reed a social worker concerned about the child. In the film, a game is being played while Donna Reed and the little girl are up in the stands watching in a scene. The scene shifts between shots of the Duke pacing along the sideline barking out plays and getting his team fired up, then to a couple of priests waving the school colors and finally to Donna Reed and the little girl who looks to be about 10-12 years old. Donna Reed is commenting to the girl about how she hopes the boys are enjoying the game and giving their all or something like that, when the little girl responds back with the line….”well you know what father (so and so) always says….”Winning isn’t everything it’s the only thing.” This line came from a Hollywood production out of the mouth of a 10-year-old fictional character. Some how this line got attributed to Vince Lombardi ( some say due to his religious affiliation with the Catholic church) and he spent the rest of his life right down to his last days attempting to correct that mistake with sports commentators and writers.
I suspect like many others, that this kind of thinking, that winning is the only thing, has dominated many a coach and parent’s way of looking at sports competition, and when our children, our school’s team, or we are not winning at every contest then there must be something wrong. Is it possible that something else is being gained that for the moment neither I the parent nor I the coach can grasp in my moment of temporary setback? It is the notion of winning all the time that is so in grained in our society that we do all kinds of things including ignoring our higher sense of self to achieve it. At times, we are willing to do “whatever it takes” even if it means not doing the right thing. Confused yet? Of course you are because unfortunately, once we remove the mind set that “winning is everything “we are forced to look someplace else for the real purpose of these competitions. In looking, the answer I have discovered is not in my head. It lies truly in the heart with a capital H, and, I will come back to that in a minute.
If you look at winning and losing as a whole the fact of the matter is that every time you step onto a field your chances are 50/50. This is a simple truth, the world as we can perceive it, is made up of a set of opposites, hot vs. cold, up vs. down, win vs. lose etc. everything in creation is a world of duality. In fact, you cannot experience one without the other. Imagine living with only daylight? Only darkness? One compliments the other. Without sorrow, this is no joy. Without an opponent, we do not get to play the game. So how do we operate then in this world of duality? Moreover, where do we put our attention in order to succeed instead of fail? In addition, more to the point, how do we participate in competitive sports? The answer lies in our higher sense of self. There is a greater part of us that knows how to take all this duality and see it for what it is and what it is not. We are far more than just winners or loser’s in this game! We are in fact, the creators of our own destinies. And depending on how we notice and observe the workings of our own thoughts and the feelings they create we can see the good in both the winning and the losing. We can experience both the good and the bad of winning and losing, and not forget our true selves. This is not a new concept, Eastern forms of competition have been teaching this for thousands of years; they even refer to their sports as “arts” as in martial arts. The goals of which are not to annihilate or destroy opponents but to honor, respect and love them. The realization being that without an opponent the artist does not have anyway to demonstrate the skills he has mastered. The competition is based on both opponents demonstrating their best, giving 100% and enjoying the chance to compete. It is not in the winning or losing but in the competing that the athlete/artist is able to demonstrate his level of mastery. Vince Lombardi’s correction of the famous misquote “Winning isn’t everything-but wanting to win is.” Has a very subtle but powerful distinction from winning is the only thing. That distinction lies in the power of our attention and intention. Why participate in an activity unless you do it to the best of your ability? Our intention should always be to do our best to win or succeed, however if on any given day we do not have the outcome we would prefer we are not meant to take that personally. We give our best, learn from our mistakes and simply get better as we grow. I have a personal motto that goes like this: “Make it personal; don’t take it personal.” What I mean by that is I want to do things to the best of my ability, I want to personally make it my business to give all that I can, while at the same time, remembering that if I succeed or fail it is not a real reflection of who I truly am, it is just the result of the best of my efforts at that time.
I can remember a number of times in my coaching career and my parenting careers, when my son and I both learned lessons during his days as a peewee flag football player. One season, he was drafted onto a team that could not win a game. He would complain on our rides home and at one point told me, he did not want to play anymore. I understood his pain, having been there as a coach and player myself, but also knew that there would be some value in continuing and following through with what he had committed to doing. After much discussion and persuasion on my part, he agreed to finish the season and to simply give his best no matter what the score was in any given game. His team never did win a single game in the regular season, but lo and behold, a small miracle did occur. When it came time for the playoffs, his team was able to be successful at the two most important games of the year. That is right; they won the semi final and the championship games. I took the opportunity to point out to my son that had he quit, he would have missed out on being a champion. We also discussed how you never really know how things might turn out if you keep your commitments and your word and just give your best.
Earlier I mentioned a Hollywood movie that produced a very dangerous and unrealistic concept. Hollywood has also produced some very amazing and wonderful stories to inspire us as well. I recently watched “Friday Night Lights” another movie about football. It is all about the highly competitive game of Texas High School football. The best part was the scene in the locker room at half time of the “big game” when Coach Gary Gaines starts talking about “Being Perfect”, the team’s context for the season. He starts by telling the players to just forget about what is on the scoreboard, to forget about winning, and just go back out on the field to give their best, to give their all for each other and to do it with love in their hearts, and a sense of joy for playing the game. He tells them how much he loves each of them and models for them what he hopes they have learned…If they play the game to the best of their ability, and for all the right reasons, the final score is not their reward; the feeling they leave with will be. We are all looking for, the answer we find in our Heart with a capital H. this real answer. In the game of football or the game of life, if we play full out, giving our best and loving what we do, there will only be winners and champions no matter what the scoreboard says. Playing the game for all the right reasons is the key.
Finding and understanding the right reasons to compete was and is the biggest challenge I face on a daily basis no matter what the task. I live in this world of duality and by nature; I prefer only half of what makes up my perception of reality. I only want to win, I only want happiness etc. The problem is the more attached I am to what I want, the more I also become attached to their opposites. Reality is a dual edged sword. The answer to this puzzle is in not being attached, but rather to play the game from your heart and not your head. You see, it is your head and your ego that sees and experiences the duality and it is your head that creates the preferences based on all the information it has collected over a lifetime of living in this world of opposites. It is your head that will take the winning and losing personally; your heart on the other hand will just go with the flow feeling the joy and love of simply playing the game. It is love that takes you back to the game-time and time again-whether you are winning or losing. In other words, Love isn’t everything…it is the only thing. Winning is a happy byproduct.
A few years ago, while I was as an assistant coach at the high school level; I was listening to our head coach talk to the players at halftime of a varsity basketball game. He told them that in order to be winners they would have to work hard, play smart, have fun and do it together. I found that to be very good advice. And as I was listening to him speak these ideas, it dawned on me that before anyone would ever want to commit to all the hard work it takes to win, something else would need to be present as well. The reason we become real winners and champions in sports and in life, is mainly that – aside from committing to the hard work, the playing smart, the fun etc. – we have to truly love what we are doing.
If we love what we are doing, it is far easier to put in the work, rebound from the losses and show up to play the game over and over again. As it turns out, when you examine the mindsets and hearts of true champions (whether in sports or in life) what you see and hear from them is how much they love it. Whatever the “it” is for them. All great champions have this as the basis for participating in their chosen endeavors. All great people have learned to play the game from their heart and simply use their head as a compass-a tool to navigate their way to success. This is the most valuable lesson, sports and competition has taught me. This is the most valuable lesson we can teach our young athletes. “Winning isn’t everything-it’s loving what you do that means everything.”