Our american culture is focused so much on winning…so much on success. Winning the race, scoring the winning goal, even winning people to Christ! And I understand…I love to win.
But there is so much more to life than winning.
Indeed, before a child ever wins anything, they will lose at countless attempts.
Learning to walk, they fall down hundreds of times before stringing steps together to run.
Learning to run, they will lose dozens of races before they ever even begin to place near the top.
And surely, each failed attempt can be disheartening. Unless you as a parent seize the opportunity to teach them to learn from each challenge, point out improvement (no matter how minuscule), and continue to cheer them on even when they are dead last, they may very wrongly conclude that competition is not for them. And that would be a sad miscalculation.
Competition is where the fire of drive begins.
Losing with dignity can be the most satisfying win of all…and let me share a personal experience.
Last year…was difficult. Daly Kay had been signed up for the Escape from Alcatraz race. (For anyone not familiar, this is where the triathletes swim 1.5 miles in the freezing Pacific from Alcatraz Island to shore, then ride 18 miles through the hilly San Francisco streets, and 8 miles up and down those same hills. To a Florida girl these “hills” seem like mountains the size of Everest–but anyhow….) We had just faced several personal challenges including moving and my father’s death. For those and many other reasons, Daly Kay had not really been training. David decided to take her anyhow, even though the usually frigid race had been moved from June to March. MARCH. In San Francisco. That’s like…sub-arctic water temperatures.
Anyhow, David and Daly Kay go. They begin the swim, and just as David had vowed to me, he stayed right next to her. Within the first couple of minutes, he asks her how she’s doing. As Daly Kay tries to respond she realizes she has gotten so cold that hypothermia is setting in, and she can’t answer. She thinks to herself that the only way to get through it is to keep moving…and so she does.
Flopping one arm in front of the other, they make it across the bay. Years of training came in handy as she willed her body to keep moving despite complete numbness. When she got to the beach and tried to walk, she fell face down into the sand. She tried again to get up and walk, but her limbs were not responding. Cold beyond belief, she spent over an hour warming up. Any good time she had made across the bay swimming was now spent.
Most people would have/should have quit.
But since the kids were old enough to understand, I had drilled them with:
NEVER QUIT. I DON’T CARE IF YOUR LEG FALLS OFF IN THE RACE, PICK IT UP AND HOP TO THE FINISH.
Never ever, ever, ever, ever quit.
They had witnessed their father’s “failed attempt” (where he still finished despite food poisoning at the Ironman World Championships) at Kona. They had countless times come in last because of a flat tire, bike crash, or twisted ankle. Truthfully, my kids have lost many more times than they have won. But they always finish. And so…she didn’t quit.
The race officials were closing the beach. She hobbled up the sand still numb in her extremities and shivering. She got to the first transition area. Her dad right next to her, he asked if she wanted to try the bike. She did. She wasn’t fast by any means, but a mile at a time, she kept moving just ahead of the meat wagon. (That’s slang for the guys picking up the injured and the quitters along the way…). She vowed to stay ahead of that truck. And sure enough, she finished the bike. Walking into transition two, she still had an arduous 8 mile run of nothing but hills and a death defying sand ladder.
She had a right to quit.
She hadn’t trained.
She was way underweight.
She had suffered with hypothermia.
But this was the day. The decision.
This was the race she would lose and she could still consider herself a winner and conqueror forevermore.
This one decision would be the mile marker from adolescence to womanhood.
The 8 mile run and sand ladder didn’t get the best of her either. If you look at the race results, you won’t see her name, because she completed the race after the allotted time frame (of course due to the one hour of warming up in the beach!). But make no mistake, she completed the course. She finished the race. And she is a winner for that epic loss in my book more so than if she had placed on the podium. She lost royally, but she won so much more. And that is what years of competition, losing, and occasionally winning will do for a child. It will forge inside of them a spirit of perseverance, endurance, and inner fortitude.
That Alcatraz experience will be something Daly Kay will draw on for the rest of her life. The physical hardship made her more mentally, emotionally, and spiritually disciplined in ways that I am not sure happen so easily outside of competition. A lifetime of hearing “NEVER GIVE UP“ pushed her far beyond what everyone else in the meat wagon that day (all of whom were better athletes and far better trained) could give. And that’s the best lesson losing can ever teach us.
And this year…she not only completed Alcatraz ahead of the meat wagon, she won her age group. Last year’s loss stoked the flames of fire in her spirit to not only complete the course, but COMPETE.
She may have “lost” last year royally, but by completing the course, it was the most dignified finish of all. And this year, she is Queen of the Rock.