Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lessons to Learn from The World Cup

Beginning in 1930 and played (almost) every 4 years since then, the World Cup is the Beautiful Game’s ultimate tournament. Having spent the vast majority of my life participating in this sport, it goes without saying that I find this a magical time.

I love the athleticism of 22 players on the pitch. In enjoy the passing, the shots, the saves, the traps, the runs. All of it. For anyone that has spent a significant amount of time involved in a sport, this level of fascination and appreciation is totally understandable. But my captivation with soccer (or football for the purist) goes deeper than just awe of the physical talents demonstrated. I think there is some interesting social commentary in and around The Game.

I believe that you can start to tell how dedicated a person is to something based on their response to success and failure. While enthusiasm and jubilee are evident after success, discouragement and despair are just as apparent after failure. Obviously there is a healthy level of despair (see below), but if someone doesn’t feel a noticeable amount of frustration or sadness when a shot goes wide; if you don’t feel a little depressed when you are down by a goal or two and the whistle blows at the end of 90 minutes; then I would argue that the game didn’t really mean all that much to you.

A poignant example of this dichotomy was seen in the Round of 16 match between the US and Ghana. The United States made it through the first stage ranked number 1 in their group – more a result of fleeting moments of brilliance than solid, consistent play. Ghana come through ranked number 2 in their group, and while their team didn’t boast huge superstars, they had been playing hard-nose, over-achieving ball. Both of these teams are trying to shake different stigmas: the US that our nation doesn’t really care that much about soccer; Ghana that an African team could master the Beautiful Game and truly compete on an international level. It’s also important to note that Ghana was the last of the African teams, and as such, had the backing of an entire continent.
An entertaining game that went to overtime, and effectively ended when the Ghanian star Gyan scored on great left-footed shot. Perhaps I am overly cliché, but both teams “gave it all they could” and their effort was obvious when the final whistle polarized each team’s emotions. Ghana won and was ecstatic. The US lost and was devastated.

Vince Lambardi’s famous misquote indeed summarizes the drive to succeed; “Winning isn’t everything. The will to win is everything.” I believe that the desire to succeed should permeate our existence. That doesn’t mean “win at all costs”, that means that we put everything we’ve got into the tasks we undertake. Be it family, or work, or callings. When something in one of these charges fails, we should feel a significant level of dismay and disappointment. Likewise, when something succeeds, we should feel celebratory.

Naturally one question to arise is what to do when we fail. Do we succumb to the dismay and depression that result from failure?

Turning back to the World Cup. Germany and Uruguay both lost semi-final matches to their respective opponents. If you watch the games, or look at images of the players of these losing teams, it is obvious how crushing the losses were.

Both teams had come exceptionally close to the cup, only to miss the chance to participate in the final. The “consolation” match for third place between Germany and Uruguay started as one might expect – two teams that felt frustrated and depressed. The beginning of the game didn’t swell with the normal excitement or anticipation of other matches. In fact, it almost seemed to me that the teams would rather be on a plane headed home, than playing another match. However, not long into the game, everything changed. I can’t put my finger on the exact moment, but sometime in that first half both teams seem to forget about their recent pain, and started paying attention to the task at hand. In my opinion, the match turned out to be one of the most entertaining of the entire tournament. The skills of individual players and composite teams were astounding. The desire to win was rekindled, and the result was a courageous attempt to excel. Only when the players dismissed the agony of recent defeats were they able to meet their potential.

Likewise in life. Anything worth doing is worth our unbridled effort (D&C 4). Success and failure are transient. Failure should not consume us, but only be the motivation to improve.

I could go on about a number of other things, like the traditional exchanging of jerseys at the end of a game, or the professionalism of stopping play when a player is (really) injured. But I’ll stop here.

There is so much joy in the journey. The highs and lows of a game are what make it interesting. Without missed shots, saves, goals, and all the rest, it would just be a bunch of people aimlessly jogging around with their socks pulled high.

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