OREM — In the same universe where superstars become millionaires, champions get (and sometimes reject) invitations to meet with our country’s leaders, and fans criticize, vilify and even harass athletes they’ve never met for not delivering them the euphoria they crave as a "supporter," the lives of young people are being transformed.
This universe is sports.
The seemingly trivial activity is games.
The reality is complicated.
We say sports are peripheral. We acknowledge they’re not real life. No one’s life will be saved because a team won a title.
But at the same time, the games are essential.
I am reminded of this reality every time I watch high school teams compete for a championship. The evidence can be found in any game, in almost any athlete.
Sometimes they realize their dreams, sometimes they don’t. At the end of one championship match this weekend, I noticed two girls, one from each team competing, embracing a family member. Faces buried in the chest of someone who loved them, both girls cried. By definition, one was a winner, one a loser. But as anyone who has competed for, worked for or fought for a goal, there is accomplishment in just having that moment.
I cannot stop thinking about those young athletes and the lessons they teach with their decisions to pursue excellence. Today I share the lessons this middle-aged bench warmer learned from their effort to be something extraordinary.
- Dedication is the path to excellence. It is easy to want to win. It’s easy to talk about it, and it’s easiest to celebrate it. The commitment comes far from game day, maybe months away from the glory of achievement. Dedication is getting up early to work out. It’s deciding that training is a gift you’re giving yourself and not a punishment being imposed. It’s trusting a coach, a workout, a scheme. It’s being committed to showing up for other people, and being willing to sacrifice immediate gratification for something you may not even be able to envision. It’s making better (but harder) decisions because you want a better life.
- A rising tide lifts all boats. The ability to find joy in the achievement of others is key to (a) finding personal happiness and (b) creating a team-first environment. If you cannot revel in the accomplishments of a teammate, you will never know the joy of having others celebrate your moments. It’s OK to feel envy, but it’s not OK to hold onto it. Let your affection for your teammates wash it out of your heart. Because even if you never achieve what you want in that competitive domain, you will be known as a great teammate, a loyal friend, and long after the final whistle blows, that’s something the world needs more than champions.
- Accomplishing something great as a group of diverse individuals feels even more satisfying than accomplishing something on your own. Some will debate this lesson because finding the drive necessary to do something great on your own is something special and worth celebrating. But the question is how much of what we accomplish as individual athletes is really achieved alone? We need each other. Learning to encourage, teach and work together is the kind of accomplishment that will help one succeed in any situation. Finding ways to set aside differences and working toward a common goal is really the only way anything gets accomplished. Sometimes you won’t find easy friendships or a nurturing, knowledgeable coach. Maybe you will need to be the leader you desire. Maybe you will need to offer the affection and support that you wished someone would shower on you. If your team is fractured and mired in negativity, consider that you are the one who is supposed to bring positive energy and a unifying spirit. That can only be learned if you’re willing to enter into a team effort.
- Failure and disappointment are necessary components of success. Avoiding them only sentences one to mediocrity. This one is the most difficult for me. I can find ways to be committed, to be happy for others, to be selfless as a teammate. But risking failure, real heartache, humiliation and the loss of a dream is not just difficult. It’s so terrifying that most people won’t do it. Which is why most people won’t achieve excellence.
But over and over I watched teenage volleyball players risk it all for a goal they shared with their teammates. Really great athletes suffered heartbreak this weekend. Really good teams didn’t take home a trophy. A lot of hard work appears to have gone unrewarded.
Except that it didn’t.
And that might be the most transformative aspect of athletics. Regardless of the outcome, whatever you risk, whatever you invest, that’s your reward. And nowhere is that more evident, more tangible than it is when you’re watching high school athletes compete in gymnasiums far from the glare of the spotlight.