I recently watched a heartwarming video exemplifying true sportsmanship. Considering these were just young boys – U-12 (under 12) – it was truly a remarkable sight to see the victorious Barca’s “Infantil B” team, having just won the World Challenge Cup final, embrace and offer comfort to their defeated and heartbroken opponents in the midst of celebrating their win.
Our son, Dylan, was 7 when he joined Pioneer Little League Baseball.
We arrived at sign-ups early Saturday morning along with the other enthusiastic soon-to-be baseball players and Dylan immediately ran to his friends to inquire which team they were going to try out for. The parents were in huddled masses debating coaching styles and personalities, and one name kept surfacing as “the man you do NOT want coaching your child."
“He is so strict! He makes those kids practice until it’s dark outside.” I left one huddle and wriggled my way into another. “He yells at the boys!” one concerned mom quipped. “Oh I know,” another agreed, “I have a friend whose son played on his team, but they switched him to another team after one practice."
I searched the grounds for my husband only to find he had experienced the same concerns from many of the fathers there. “Man, I want to find out who this guy is," my husband blurted enthusiastically. “Why?” I asked, “He sounds like a maniac. I don’t want Dylan to be afraid of his coach, especially his first year.” We were snapped out of our deliberation by a man with a very authoritative, loud, and raspy voice insisting parents and boys come forward for instructions.
A hush fell over the adults, and I knew by the looks of concern and whispering that this man was indeed the dreaded coach, the one to be avoided at all costs. He was all business, a bit intimidating, but there was something about him my husband and I instantly related to: he was a winner. As parents, want to see our children excel at what they do, and in sports, ideally, we want to see them win.
He instructed the parents to take their boys to a specific coach if they had a preference and if not, to wait and we’d be called in turn. Several coaches, donning red shirts, stood nearby.
We went directly to the "mean" coach – Coach Bill – which really wasn’t a group yet at all. Only a few parents had wandered over, but my husband and I were intrigued, and wanted to hear his philosophy. Our son was ambivalent, but excited to be there.
We listened closely to what he said. He spoke of teamwork, dedication, love of the game, perseverance, hard work, sacrifice. He didn't mention the word "winning" until he said, “We’ll win, of that you can be sure. But, winning isn’t what the game is about, and that’s what I’m going to teach your boys.”
He continued, “It’s easy to win, easy to be a victor. It’s also easy to believe that winning makes you better than everyone else and while it’s true, you may have been better that day, that game, we are never assured a win. It’s important for kids to learn how to win and more important for them to learn how to lose. And that’s what I’ll teach your boys. I have a reputation, I’m sure you’ve heard. It’s all true. I will work these boys hard every practice, that’s how you learn the game. And they’ll be great at it. But mostly they’ll learn the grace in winning and losing, and that both have their place in baseball, and in life.”
The few losses the Rockies had were great folly for other teams, the boys on it, and particularly their parents. At the end of each game, when the boys lined up to pass one another in single file and exchange a heartfelt, “Good game!” as is the custom, the victors of the other teams were snarky, prideful, and uttered insults as they passed by. It was sad to see – particularly to watch the parents encouraging this behavior.
When this happened the first time, our boys were angry. They had plans to retaliate in kind when they won, to treat the losers the same way, to give them a taste of their own medicine. When Bill overheard their plans he called them all back into the clubhouse and sat them down.
“You will NEVER, and I mean never, act disrespectfully to another team, another boy, by pulling the same shenanigans they do. You are Rockies. You will say 'congratulations' or 'good game' when you pass by – win or lose – nothing more, nothing less, or you will no longer be on this team."
"But coach, that’s not fair! They made fun of us when we lost. We shouldn’t have to listen to their crap!” the boys clamored.
“Did you hear what you just said, boys? Their ‘crap.' And that is exactly what it is – crap.” coach declared.
They got it. Right then, right there. Losing was different after that speech. They held their heads high and absorbed the insults like happy sponges, filling themselves not with the agony of defeat, but with the pride of losing gracefully, and the feeling of genuine happiness for their opponent’s win. They knew well that feeling of winning, and while they certainly didn’t like to lose, they learned to do so with grace.
The Rockies won the championship that year. Like the losing team in the U-12 football championship, our opponents had fought hard, played well, and were understandably disappointed.
As the dust settled on the field, the tears began to fall. My husband and I were so proud to witness the compassion shown to the heartbroken opponents, as the Rockies offered their opponents hugs, encouragement, and praise for a game well played. There were no insults hurled, or joy found in their sorrow. The Rockies celebrated long and hard in the appropriate place and at appropriate time, and Bill was carried off the field on the shoulders of parents and children alike.
My son, now 31, has never forgotten Bill, or the Rockies. Dylan is a caring and compassionate man and has applied his coach’s philosophy to many aspects of his life. He's grateful for having known Coach Bill, and for all he learned during those formative years.
When Dylan’s father died in 2009, the church was filled with friends, family, and acquaintances. While listening to the eulogy, I quietly nudged Dylan and tilted my head to the right. Through his tears, my son looked over to see that Coach Bill was in attendance. We'd not seen him in 14 years. Dylan sat a little taller in his pew, finding comfort in Bill's presence, reminding him that even in this loss, there's grace.