Winning (Almost) Isn’t Everything

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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It was hard to watch my fifth-grade basketball team lose again. In nine years of volunteering to coach elementary- and middle-school teams, I've only had one other team lose so many times. A group of seventh-grade boys approached the end of the season without a single win. That team had lost several very close games, but finally won their last one.

My fifth-grade team, however, was losing by large margins every time. Sure, they improved a little with each game. But unless an unexpected flu epidemic broke out for our last two teams, we likely would end the season chanting or mumbling, "Winning isn't everything . . . Go team."

I watched their disappointed faces as we huddled after that game, and I was surprised at how much I wanted to make excuses for the loss. I wanted to explain all the reasons why they had difficulty winning. Our players were small. They lacked experience. Rotation rules benched our best players for half of the game. And, of course, their unfortunate draw of me as their coach.

Initially, the boys enjoyed playing whether they won or lost, but they were starting to believe the scoreboard. It had consistently reminded them our team had not achieved what their opponents had achieved—for nine straight weeks. They were quiet, defeated, and looking my way (as were their parents standing behind me).

When I was a young boy, I never fully understood the southern sports culture that shaped so much of life at my school and in my hometown. I enjoyed it though. Generations of families gathered for sporting events that only the local newspaper cared to follow. The collective energy of the community swayed each week on the outcomes of those events.

I realized many of the children now kneeling around me were part of a similar culture. It could determine their view of success and their view of themselves. Losing would always be unsatisfying.

And maybe it should be. God has created a world where we can win. Or at least, we can achieve many of our goals. Even in this fallen world, diligent pursuit of excellence can lead to success. And our success can glorify Him depending on our motives. Our creator values justice, and we long for success that is just.

That's why our opposing team was jubilantly jumping in the background excited that justice had been served. Or had it? When I win, it is convenient to believe that all parties have justly received what they deserve. It is difficult to remember that as a Christian I get what I do not deserve. Watching them celebrate and cheer, I was happy for them, but I wondered what I might say if I were their coach. I knew winning alone did not define true success. It will not satisfy anyone's soul. Those boys would be tempted to mistake achievement for acceptance, to believe winning means importance, and to accept it as the identity they desire at any cost.

Excellence is a noble goal if we pursue it in an effort to glorify God by doing our best and serving others. On the other hand, my imperfection means I never really get what I deserve—especially when I succeed. As a Christian, I struggle with such tensions. I must learn to seek achievement running a race like only a loser can. I seek to persevere and let God shape my character as I learn how to hope for the eternal prize (Rom. 5:3-4).

I sat on the floor with my team and shared their pain. Losing really does hurt, but hopefully in a way that shapes you and makes you long for true success. Basketball (as with most things in life) is best for what God allows it to do to you, not merely what it does for you.