The old saying gets it wrong. In sport, as in life, winning isn't the only thing. The only thing is doing everything in your power to win.
Have you ever wondered why even the bitterest sporting rivals often embrace each other after the final whistle has blown or the final point has been played? And why the closer the result and the greater the performance, the warmer the embrace? Or why the truly exceptional can be devastated by the retirement of their toughest opponent, the very person whom we might think blocks their path to greatness.
I recall John McEnroe saying that the worst moment of his career was the retirement of Bjorn Borg, his vanquisher in the epic 1980 Wimbledon Final, in which the 21 -year-old McEnroe had won the fourth set tie-break 18-16, only to lose the match in a rather tamer final set. One feels that the greatest regret in McEnroe's life was Borg's retirement when he was only 25.
The answer, I suspect, is that to become the very best, you have to understand that the challenge in sport is not really about the sport. It is about our search for an elusive perfection. McEnroe needed Borg as much as Tiger Woods now desperately requires another to match his ability, if he is to fulfill his destiny as the unchallenged greatest golfer of all time.
Where, you might ask, would
New Zealand or Australian rugby be without the Springboks? And vice-versa? And where would world cricket be but for the contribution of Australian cricketing excellence over the past 90 years since the appearance of Sir Donald Bradman in the 1920s?
So your opponent, it turns out, is not the obstacle to your success. In fact, they may be the most important ingredient in determining how hard you will need to prepare and the level to which you will ultimately ascend, not just in sport but perhaps also in life.
The ultimate goal in sport cannot be merely winning.
US football coach Vince Lombardi is most remembered for a quotation incorrectly attributed to him: ‘Winning is not everything, it is the only thing.’ The error, he said, is to believe that winning is ‘the only thing’. Rather, he explained that the ‘only thing’ is doing everything in your power to win.
A recent study of Harvard graduates found that the best predictor of the future success of these elite young men and women was not the intellectual prowess they showed at University. It was the positions of leadership they filled, especially in University sport but also in other collaborative activities. I conclude that sport produces crucial life lessons that are best learned in the preparation for, and participation in, competition.
W. Timothy Gallwey, author of the classic books The Inner Game of Tennis (and Golf), best describes why sport provides a unique learning experience. To achieve the goal of winning, the athlete must overcome obstacles. But the value of winning is determined by the nature of the obstacles that are overcome. The better the opponent, the greater the value of the victory.
He also explains that in tennis, as in any sport, there are two games being played at the same time: ‘One, the outer game played against the obstacles presented by an external opponent and played for one or more external prizes; the other, the Inner Game, played against internal mental and emotional obstacles for the reward of increasing self realization, that is, the knowledge of one's true potential.’
So why then do opponents embrace after the game in which everyone has done everything in their powers to win? Because in what Gallwey calls ‘true competition’, no person is defeated. Rather, both have benefited from the severity of the obstacles posed by each other.
The higher the obstacles, the more we each learn about our true potential, and what we can still achieve.
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