Sports brings steps to success, no matter who wins

Published 5:01 pm Tuesday, May 9, 2023

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“It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.”

This familiar phrase is attributed to sportswriter Grantland Rice, who penned a similar line in a 1908 poem called “Alumnus Football” to pay tribute to players from his alma mater, Vanderbilt University. The line actually is “For when the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He marks – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game.”

It’s an excellent sentiment, I think, to keep in mind when playing or watching sports. Any sport is, of course, a competition where one individual or team is expected to triumph over their opponent. But on the other hand, sports are also supposed to be a fun activity for everyone involved. So ultimately, the outcome doesn’t really matter.

Society especially emphasizes this at the youngest levels of sports. Remember participating in youth leagues during childhood? Remember P.E. classes? Winning was never as important as learning how to play, building friendships, and doing a fun form of exercise.

For a little while during my early teenage years, I used to play on a church league softball team with my brother and several friends (and some people who became friends along the way too.) We certainly didn’t win every game, but we all had plenty of good times in the ballpark anyway. I remember playing all of the outfield positions at different times, and briefly, as the team’s catcher as well.

I much preferred the outfield!

And I still remember all the sports we played in P.E. classes over the years. I liked volleyball a lot as something I’d never had the opportunity to play otherwise. And dodgeball was always my personal favorite. I’m not very athletic at all, but the thrill of seeing how long I could last in a game of dodgeball helped me unlock some physical movement skills I didn’t even know I had. (Or maybe all those years of spinning around in dance classes just paid off!)

As we get older, however, playing sports seems to become a much more serious activity. It’s not just about having fun but doing your best, playing your hardest. Winning is the goal to focus on. High school and college athletes pursue championship trophies. If you make it to the professional level for sports, then you have to be at your best in order to maintain your spot on the team. Athletes performing at the highest levels for world championships and the Olympics devote so much of their lives to excelling at their chosen sport.

Not that it’s a bad thing to have a winning goal in mind when playing sports! That often pushes athletes to run farther, go faster, and exceed their limits to achieve some amazing accomplishments. And they should be proud of what they’re able to do.

The problem is when winning becomes the only focus. It’s when spectators get frustrated and angry when their team doesn’t win. It’s when players give themselves a hard time for not being “good” enough. That’s when sports are no longer fun.

With that in mind, I was heartened to see a recent post-game interview with NBA basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo. I don’t get a chance to keep up with a lot of professional basketball these days, but Giannis – who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks – has been one of my favorites for a while. I remember back in 2021 when his team won the championship (for the first time since 1971), he celebrated afterwards by ordering 50 chicken nuggets at the local Chick-Fil-A and livestreaming the video. You could tell how excited he was, both for the championship win and for the chicken.

But last week, the Miami Heat knocked the Bucks out of the playoffs and ended Giannis and his team’s quest for another championship ring this year. In the post-game conference, Giannis was asked if he considered the season a “failure.” I think he had an excellence response to the question, so here are his words:

“Do you get a promotion every year at your job? No, right? So every year, your work is a failure? No. Every year, you work towards something, which is a goal: It’s to get a promotion, to be able to take care of your family, provide a house for them, or take care of your parents. It’s not a failure, it’s steps to success. There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played for 15 years and won six championships. The other nine years were a failure? That’s what you’re telling me.

“There’s no failure in sports,” he continued. “There’s good days, bad days. Some days you are able to be successful; some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn; some days it’s not your turn. That’s what sport’s about. You don’t always win; some other people are gonna win. And this year, someone else is gonna win. Simple as that.

“So 50 years from 1971-2021 that we didn’t win a championship, it was 50 years of failure? No it was not. There were steps to it, and we were able to win one. Hopefully, we can win another one,” he concluded.

What an excellent attitude to have! Especially just after a grueling close defeat to end the season.

Many of us can probably take those words to heart, whether we’re participating in or just watching a sport. Winning is fun, but at the end of every game, there can only be one winner. In order to find joy in sports, we have to embrace the losses as well. It is both outcomes that make sports a worthwhile activity in so many ways.

So no matter what level of sports you’re watching or playing, remember that a loss isn’t a failure. It’s just one step on the road to future success.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.