After the Championship Loss: A letter to my son

Dear Son,

So many thoughts and feelings and words inside me, this morning after the night of your team’s great National Championship loss. So many things deliberately unsaid yesterday…yesterday was a day of silent comfort, sitting in the sadness with you. Words weren’t a good idea yesterday.

And today, you are a couple of time zones away, back at school, and I back at work. So often, in times of sadness, the words never get said because it doesn’t seem to be the right time, and then when it might be the right time, the opportunity has passed. Let me seize the moment.

I’m proud of you.

So proud. Proud of you and all you and your team accomplished.  I get that you didn’t cross the finish line with a final victory, but you have many other smaller, but ultimately more important life victories. Stronger in body and spirit. Confidence. The leadership you demonstrate. I see your friendships richer. Genuine love you and your teammates have for each other.  I can’t help but be exceedingly proud of you for all your efforts.

You have been working towards yesterday’s moment since before the school year started. Heck, you’ve worked towards it since you started the sport.  You and your teammates diligently workout at the gym to build your strength and flexibility, you practice your sport for hours every day, you watch film, you talk strategy. You live and breathe your sport…all in the pursuit of excellence. It’s a wonder that you find a few hours to squeeze in some college work! You invested so much into achieving your best. The loss was simply devastating—a normal reaction to a high risk venture of being in a high level league where there can only be one winner.

When you came over to me with red eyes after yesterday’s loss for a long hug, the first thing you expressed was your disappointment in yourself. You didn’t point fingers or blame anybody else.  No offloading with blame to your team members or the officiating or the other team.

Like a true leader that you are, you owned your part. You felt like you let your team down. That feelings sucks, but it is an honest feeling that is important to notice; to pay attention to.

You had prepared your body well, worked hard to have your head and your heart in the right place, and then it didn’t come togetherThat’s a painful reality, isn’t it?

My mother’s ear had heard the gasps of astonishment around me during the match as you got the ball with a diving speed that defied all logic. My mother’s eye had seen all the solid passes you put up—I could only be delighted in you. But you knew your play at a critical level that is about numbers and statistics.  You knew that your numbers didn’t add up to the capability you have, and the responsibility you carry. You know that your play impacted the unfortunate income, and you were willing to own it.

Immediately.

As a mom, I admire that, and know how that is a quality that is too rarely seen in this world.

Leadership looks to candidly understand one’s role in the outcome, even when that understanding creates crushing disappointment in oneself.

It’s gotta hurt, to feel like you didn’t play your best, even though I know you were giving it everything you could in the moment.

You and I have talked before, son, about the difference between shame and guilt.

Shame is: “I am a failure”…and labels you. It fixes a failure as an enduring quality of who you are. Shame destines you to feel stuck in underperforming and screwing up. Shame gets you nowhere.Shame is "I am a mistake" Guilt is "I made a mistake"

Guilt is, “I failed”. Guilt is a great teacher. Your team fell short as you were playing at the top level in the country, and you told me that your play was a part of that shortcoming. I know you, son, and I know that you will mull over the game, the plays, your plans and thoughts and efforts. You will rework things for next year, you will refocus to better line up your performance with your values, and you will figure out how, not only to be a better athlete in your sport, but to be a better, stronger man.

 

The physics of vulnerability, as Brené Brown says, is that if you try hard enough, often enough, you will fail.

It’s inevitable that when you continue to play at the top level of university sports for multiple years, there will be a time of failure.  The temptation is for you and your team to tell youself some crap story about how you didn’t want it enough, or how you didn’t try hard enough…all those “not enoughs” that so easily become a part of the narrative that wraps itself around a loss.

Those are lies.

Notice when you tell yourself those stories, and check yourself.  Learn from this loss, to be certain. Go ahead and feel guilty about it, to help you grow. Plumb the depths of it, explore the pain, and understand that you can learn lessons about yourself and about life and about the sport that will create more fortitude, more strength, and more wisdom.

You’ve got this, son. You can learn from it.

I believe in you, and that belief is only stronger because of the strength I saw in your character last night. You stood there and clapped for every one of the athletes on the opposing team as they received gold medals around their necks. You had dignity beyond your years to congratulate each member of the opposing team as they received the medal you  had desperately wanted for yourself.

There were some beautiful moments that I simply must tell you about. They touched me and told me that you and your teammates have already so much wisdom and inner strength. Those moments reminded me all over again about why I love you, and why I love the team to which you so meaningfully belong.

Your empathy for your teammates was first and foremost when you wept yesterday.  You wanted to win for yourself, for certain—but you felt bad that the win didn’t come through for your final year teammate.  This was his last game of his university career, and your roommate, your best friend, suffered a loss after so much pressure and expectation to win the National Championship.

Your first thought was for him.

Teammates by chance, best friends by choice
Photo by Trinity Western photographer

I like how you say, “Teammates by chance, best friends by choice.” The whole team was there for each other.  Hugs, consolation, quiet sharing of the very disappointing space. No cheering each up. No finger pointing. Long, consoling embraces in the center of the court by men with each other in a world that I love the ready tears of strong men John Piper quoteoften ridicules masculine displays of affection. Many of your team wept openly at the end of the season, at saying farewell to a well-loved teammate, perhaps because of the immense pressure, and of course, at the loss that was so disappointing.

They didn’t hide their tears…they owned them.

Tears because it meant something. No shame in sadness. No need to hide the pain of huge loss.

You wanted to make history with the threepeatalways hard, and now impossible for so many of you, given the realities of university sport.

I hugged your friend, the graduate. I remember a week ago: he was the one who ducked his head and said a quick thanks when I congratulated him on being the MVP of his sport in the West, but really lit up when I offered to treat him and you at Wendy’s after that Western Championship. That was when he looked me in the eye to say: “Thank you”. When I hugged him yesterday after the National Championship game, he explained his tears saying, “It’s not about the loss. It’s about never playing with these guys again.”

PHoto of a coach and player hugging after a National Championship loss

Many of you then sat quietly, in solidarity on the bench for a long time.  Eventually, you went and showered. It was only 2 hours after the game that the coaches, parents and teammates gathered for pizza and chicken wings together in a room.

Your team was all there.

You showed up.

You were still sad, but you didn’t hide away. That’s courage.  And resilience. I respect that.

We ate together, after praying together. Eating together is good, isn’t it?

Eating together reminds us that we belong to each other, that we have much to be grateful for.

Win or lose, stomachs growl and need to be fed.

Life goes on…not without the sting of the loss, to be sure. It started off pretty quiet and solemn, but over time, people started telling stories of the season. Retelling of playful antics. Remembering the comraderie. The summer plans. Laughter was in the room.

It hurts today. It will still sting for a long time to come.

But you’re gonna be OK. You’ll figure it out and be the stronger for it. I know it.

And hey, did I mention I was proud of you?

‘Cuz I am.

Love,

Your Momma

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