Education Opinion

What Are We Teaching About Winning?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 01, 2015 4 min read
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This is the time of year when winter sports are wrapping up. Sectionals and division or regional playoffs dominate the local sports news. Earlier this week, major network news and ESPN’s Mike and Mike carried a story about a high school girls’ basketball game in Tennessee. Friday night CBS featured an “on the road segment” about a high school boys’ game. The contrast in the stories could not have been greater. It got us to thinking about what we teach about winning and losing.

Winning is associated with competition. Children begin to learn about winning at home; before coming to school, they have played games with family members or friends or in preschools. Others will learn lessons in activities like Babe Ruth or Pop Warner....or dance competitions. But, almost all will learn something about winning and losing in school. So, what are we teaching? Can there be a winner if there is not a loser? How important is it to learn how to win and how to lose and the values associated with each place? Many of us, in our lives, will know both experiences. Rare, indeed, is the person who only wins. And, we never want to raise a child who always loses. These are the subtle life lessons that schools impart, sometimes without consciousness.

The first story we watched this week involved the teams from the Riverdale and Smyrna High Schools in Rutherford County, Tennessee. The teams’ records were both good enough to advance them to the next round of completion for the state finals, but the winner of the game between them would have to play the top ranked school. So, the coaches explained to the teams the advantages of losing. Fans who gathered for the game watched as the girls tried to lose the game. The players missed free throws, caused turnovers and shot at the wrong basket, intentionally. The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association intervened. The coaches are suspended, the teams are on probation for a year and banned from the playoffs. The school principals argued, unsuccessfully, to allow the teams to continue without their coaches. Those who saw the game concluded that the players were trying to “tank” the game. Adults created the environment in which high school girls tried to make their winning easier by avoiding the challenge of playing a top ranked team. Really, what are the lessons we want taught in our interscholastic sports programs? These young athletes were mocking the sport they love. Rather than playing to be their best, they played to be their worst. How often does winning become more important than how we play the game itself? We wonder who, in those high schools this week, will be teaching the players and the school community as a whole, about the value of honest winning and the value of consequences for the lack of fair play. If that isn’t a topic in an assembly or in every classroom this week, more than the coaches and the basketball team are at fault.

But, as often happens, there is another page and another story. On Friday evening, we watched a segment of “On the Road”. It is also about high school basketball, although a boys’ game, and everything about it reveals different operating values. This game is between the team from a Gainesville juvenile correctional facility and Vanguard College Prep, a private school in Waco, Texas. The visiting team from the correctional facility was used to games with none of their own fans, even at home games. Others from the facility couldn’t attend and the visits by family or friends were few and far between. But, Vanguard players Hudson Bradley and Ben Martinson decided to create a new experience for the opposing team. They asked members of their own community to become Gainesville fans...and even cheerleaders. In so doing, they gave the Gainesville team a night they will remember forever...and they give us another lesson in what it means to win. The two young men who gave this gift of supportive fans to the other team exhibited a remarkable leadership potential. They were motivated by sensitivity to the “other” and aware of the difference encouragement makes. And, yes, somewhere in the background we acknowledge those adults...coaches, leaders and parents... who created an environment in which these young men could be so wise and generous. We applaud CBS for finding this story and making it part of this week’s look at high school basketball.

Winning in this game was about the development of character, not just the points on the scoreboard, and it acknowledged that, in life, there are always bigger issues than points. It is about who we are as people, what we value and how much we care. So, lets’ conclude with a basketball star’s thoughts about what matters. A commitment to winning and to being trustworthy and a good role model are inextricably connected. Let’s hope that becomes the lesson at Riverdale and Smyrna this week.

Commitment is a big part of what I am and what I believe. How committed are you to winning? How committed are you to being a good friend? To being trustworthy? To being successful? How committed are you to being a good father, a good teammate, a good role model? There’s that moment every morning when you look in the mirror: Are you committed, or are you not? - LeBron James

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