I graduated from a high school with the worst football team in the state. We had not won a game in decades. Once a year we pulled together to “take on” our district rivals, the second worst team in the state, but even they beat us year after year.
I went to an all-women’s college that had just gone coed, so a football team was not in the immediate plans. It has been forty years and the planning committee still has no plans to start one.
My first teaching assignment was in a school district with two high schools and though they won half of the time, they never made it past their season
I hadn’t ever experience “winning.” Football had schooled me in how to be a good loser. You played hard, walked off the field head held high, and congratulated the winner. There was no shame in doing your best and being bested.
Then I went to work for the Number One Football District in the State. Back then that school district only had one high school and two middle schools, and all three of them were feared for their prowess on the field. The coaches at all three schools surpassed the strictness and training of professional football teams.
The two middle schools demolished all their competition and went after each other like mad dogs during their yearly in-district game. Hundreds of boys tried out as freshman and only a few made it, and lasted, in that elite high school team. They were invincible and it was a given, year after year, they were going to the state finals.
I was amazed at the apathy among the rest of the students. As fans they had known nothing else but one win after another and were bored by it. I was elated to finally be on the side of glory. Nothing I said or did made a difference to my students, but I waited for the day they would experience a loss. One of the middle schools had to lose to the other; the high school team might not make it all the way to the top of the heap.
When that day happened, I let them voice their anger and disappointment. I let the “fair weather fans” dump their team. I let them rant, then I read them my favorite poem by Emily Dickinson, Success.
“Success is counted sweetest/by those who never succeed/To comprehend a nectar/requires sorest need. . . .”
I explained to them that the true measure of a competitor is learning also how to lose. It is much easier to walk off the field triumphant to the sound of cheers and adulation; it takes fortitude to walk off that same field amid boos and jeers after losing a good fight.
I asked them to take time from their celebration after a win next time and look, really look, at the losing team as they exited the field. You learn more by watching the losers walk off the field than you do watching the victors.