Ego-based thinking, attitudes and behaviors are at the root of the win-at-all-costs (WAAC) mentality that warps sport at its best.
Let's start with a look at the WAAC approach to sports.
The WAAC mentality sees sport as a metaphor for war, in which opponents are evil and must be conquered. It's a mindset that sees only one thing of value in athletic competition: winning.
Vince Lombardi was quoted as saying, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
That's it. For the Lombardi types of the world, if you don't win, the whole endeavor is a waste of time. With that line of thinking there is no other reason to compete in sports.
I strongly disagree with that philosophy. That mindset leads to the behaviors (cheating, taunting, cheap shots, fighting, belittling, etc.) that drive WAAC-based sports. And it's that type of thinking and behavior that provides the foundation for Sport At Its Worst.
Sport At Its Best, on the other hand, isn't a zero-sum game. Both sides can succeed, no matter what the scoreboard says.
I believe the healthiest - physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually - way to view sport is this: Winning isn't everything, it's just one thing.
Striving to win is an inherent part of competition, including athletic competition. Striving to win isn't the problem in sports. It's striving to win at all costs that's the problem.
Winning, in the best sense, isn't just about wins and losses. Nor is it just about your performance, or that of your team.
It reminds me of the saying, "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing poorly." In other words, there are so many positive benefits from sports participation that even if you are a lousy athlete and only rarely win on the scoreboard, it's worth doing.
And sport participation has to be about more than just your needs and wants in order to be fulfilling. If sport is to be totally satisfying to the human spirit, and not just the ego, winning needs to have a communal good aspect to it.
Success in sports evolves out of true competition. True competition is a cooperative venture, in which all competitors give maximum effort, under a fair set of rules, toward a goal of excellence for all. By striving with our opponents vs. striving against them, a contest can have successful outcomes for both parties. Yes, only one side can win the game or match, but there are positives to be derived from sport no matter what side of the scoreboard one might end up on.
Sport At Its Best is not viewed as a battle against an enemy. It's striving for excellence with an opponent, not striving against a hated adversary.
As David Light Shields and Brenda Light Bredemeier wrote in their outstanding book True Competition, excellence is about finding one's personal boundaries. It doesn't mean being better than someone else. It means being the best you can be, and one's opponents help in achieving that goal.
Winning on the scoreboard, beating one's competitors, can be a fool's gold way of measuring one's worth.
In True Competition, Shields and Bredemeier write about the movie Without Limits, which is about legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine. In the movie, Prefontaine's track coach (played by Donald Sutherland) describes his and Pre's differing approaches to competition this way:
All of my life, I've operated under the assumption that the main idea in running was to win the damn race. I tried to teach Pre how to do that.
Tried like hell to teach Pre to do that. And Pre taught me. Taught me
I was wrong. Pre, you see, was troubled by knowing that mediocre
effort can win a race and a magnificent effort can lose one. Winning a
race wouldn't necessarily demand that he give it everything he had from
start to finish. He finally got it through my head that the real purpose of running isn't to win a race. It's to test the limits of the human heart.
If we think about it, all of us who have competed in sports can relate to this perspective. We've all experienced games or matches in which we individually, or as part of a team, blew out an opponent without having to give a full effort. We can also remember games or matches in which we lost but gave the ultimate effort and played to the best of our abilities at the time.
Now, which scenario best represents true competition?
John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, fully appreciated the concept of true competition. As part of his famous "Pyramid of Success," Wooden defined success this way:
Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction
in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you
There's nothing about winning games, Olympic medals, or college athletic scholarships in that definition. There's nothing about beating a hated enemy in that definition. For Wooden, succeeding as an athlete (or in life for that matter) was about giving maximum effort in an attempt to be the best you can be in a given endeavor.
A worthy and cooperative opponent helps in that quest for excellence.
CBS News' Bob Schieffer once put it this way, "The great value of sport is that it teaches us to recognize the difference between winning and striving for excellence -- the better, but much harder, achievement."
Let's go back to the Lombardi quote: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
Would sport be as popular as it is today if winning was the only thing of value to be gained? What about having fun, enjoying camaraderie with teammates and opponents, and improving one's health and overall wellness? What about developing self-discipline, and appreciating the value of hard work? How about learning the importance of sacrifice, teamwork, and goal setting? What about learning how to deal with adversity, the importance of proper preparation? Or, acting with courage and learning to be accountable for one's actions? And, of course, there is the great value of sportsmanship, learning how to compete ethically.
The list of values associated with sports participation goes on from there. But one thing's for sure: winning isn't the only thing.
It's just one thing.