What does it mean to win? When kids are little, we like to give everyone a medal whether they are first or last in the race. It builds confidence and encourages kids to do more. Kids play games all the time where they win. Most of the time, they get to go out for ice cream after their baseball or soccer game whether they win or lose. As adults, we have different standards of winning. We win a contract. We lose a client. Although even now, some of those standards seem to be muddied. What does it mean to win the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan? Can we really win an election if manipulation or cheating is involved?
The United States Soccer (or is it Football) team is changing the meaning for us through their World Cup play. On Friday, headlines across the country and internet shouted: US Loses – Advances to Next Round. How could that be? We tell kids all the time (or at least we used to): It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. And in this case, that seems to be true. Although I’m not a big follower of the game, and I don’t pretend to really understand the process, it seems that the cumulative effort of the team’s scoring throughout the round helped advance the team to the single-elimination segment of the tournament when winning is indeed everything.
Let’s think about this for a minute. What can this concept mean in our world? Although in the end one must perform, there are second chances. One game, one test, does not determine the totality of your abilities. We can be forgiven for a bad catch, a bad play, a miss, and still move on. Those of us who, like me, do poorly on tests might appreciate this kind of scoring. In this world of high stakes (and high revenue) testing, winner-take-all can have some very bad consequences. And maybe we can bring home our troops without wondering whether we’ve won or lost and just reflect on what we’ve accomplished.
What we can learn from our national team? Perhaps we should measure success by the standards of Pirkei Avot 4:1)
Who is wise? The one who learns from others…
Who is strong? The one who controls his emotions…
Who is rich? The one who is happy with his share…
Who is honored? The one who honors others.
Or we should look to what the Torah says about how you play the game, whatever your game may be. In Leviticus 19:14, we are told to not put a stumbling block before the blind. Everyone deserves a fair shot. Sometimes, even two!