It was the most disturbing message I heard during my high school athletic career. “A good loser is still a loser.” Second place was never good enough. Winning was all that mattered.
Youth and scholastic athletic programs were designed to promote good character. Shields and Bredemeier (2007) discovered that participants in sports developed a different set of moral frameworks when competing. They noted that “aggression, cheating, and other poor sport behaviors occur with alarming frequency.”
In sports, as in life, what is the path to building character while striving for higher achievement?
Moral values guide certain beliefs. It is instilled within our society (through family and educational institutions). It challenges us to gauge between our self-interest and others. It guides human interactions and governs our perception of reality. However, can a moral person succeed?
Jim Loehr provided a unique perspective to understanding the drive for both character and higher achievement. In the last statement in his book, The Only Way to Win (2012), Loehr wrote, “The only enduring path to achievement fulfillment at work and in life is making sure character trumps all other considerations. It is, truly, the only way to win.” Character is key to winning. Honesty, kindness, truthfulness, humility, fairness, compassion, and integrity are just a few.
The disillusionment of success lies within the misguided failed promises that great achievements lead to lasting happiness and fulfillment, great achievements lead to stable self-esteem, great achievements leads to a strong character, and great achievements lead to the foundation of a successful life. “These promises are flawed,” Loehr wrote. Even German writer, artist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe noted, “we are never deceived; we deceive ourselves.”
Loehr illustrated this concept by sharing tennis professional Andre Agassi’s struggle to find fulfillment in his profession. He quotes Agassi, “I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. But I don’t feel that Wimbledon changed me. Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.”
Agassi’s frankness jumps right in our face. How could one be so successful in his sport and yet feel this way? Loehr’s answer: if you want to be happy, practice compassion.
Some self-reflection needs to take place. Why we are striving toward some objective or goal? Why go through the pain of strength training and on-course practice? Why do we expend so much energy and time in activities that only extrinsically provide some enjoyment? What brings intrinsic enjoyment? Are your ambitions justified if it harms your relationships? How far will you go to achieve success, and at what price? Why are you pursuing this goal? How much do you compromise your values to achieve success? The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden noted, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
As we strive to achieve the pinnacle of athletic success, we need to look inwardly to what kind of legacy we want to leave behind? What would you like carved on your tombstone? How would you like people to remember you? Is your legacy to be an accomplished athlete at all costs or a compassionate, moral person? Wooden said, “Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”
Yes, we can be remembered for our achievement. But it will be our character that people will remember most. To be successful on and off the course, build your moral character. It will leave a lasting legacy.
“It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment,” wrote Cicero.