Everyone likes winning. I’ve never met someone who said they like losing. At a minimum, victory puts a smile on the face of the victor. The whole reason the NFL had to invent the excessive celebration penalty is because the players’ celebrations in the end-zone were delaying the game, and maybe even bordering unsportsmanlike behavior.  Everyone likes winning.

There’s everyone, but then there’s the next level of people who I’d classify as having a zeal for winning. Zeal is defined as great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective. A person who possesses an abundance of zeal is a zealot. Zealot is a pejorative term in some ways because we have associated zealotry with obsession, and in some cases, even terrorism.

People who have a zeal for winning go beyond enjoying a win. They pour their energy and enthusiasm into making sure that the next competition will be a win for their team as well.  What I see in many people today is a waning zeal for winning. Our culture has bent so far backward into efforts to be inclusive and diverse, that we now don’t want to alienate the people on the losing team.  In fact, I’ve heard of children’s sports leagues just getting rid of winning and losing altogether in the name of just having fun.  The mantras of inclusion and diversity have inadvertently brought about the end of healthy competition.

How, you may ask? By nature, inclusion and diversity are efforts to ensure that there are no offenses made against a person or a group of people’s feelings and beliefs.  It’s an effort to make for a peaceful coexistence between diverse people groups and points of view.  As well-intentioned as that may be, what has happened in the wake of this movement is that competition has suffered. As we turn our efforts toward sensitivity and being non-offensive, it has affected the way we handle the competitive nature.  In order to not offend the feelings of the losing competitors, we minimize the value of winning and elevate things like fairness, sportsmanship and fun as the most valued things in competition.  We say things like, “You’re all winners,” and, “It’s all in good fun.”

Time out.

May I say, what a load of crap! I mean no disrespect, but if you minimize the value of winning, you remove the incentive to excel.  If you remove the incentive to excel, the competitive nature atrophies. If the competitive nature is weak, life becomes about maintaining a level of comfort and ease instead of striving for something better. You stop dreaming, you stop pursuing. Life becomes self-interested and doesn’t really look to the future much, but instead just focuses on what must be done to keep the lights on and the entertainment flowing. Winning gives you purpose and goals.  Winning helps you remain focused on something beyond the moment. If you’re not winning, or working toward winning, there’s no purpose, and entertainment and comfort becomes your opiate.

We need to bring back a zeal for winning.  I’m no aficionado on Myrtle Basketball history, but I do know that my hometown has a legacy of winning in basketball.  In the six years I spent in basketball, from junior high to my senior year, I learned to love winning.  Our coach, Elvis Thomas, instilled in us a zeal to win.  We didn’t just like to win.  We were winning zealots.

The work ethic of drills.  The consequences of pushups, sit-ups, and laps for missing layups.  The conditioning that came from running laps and weight training.  Sometimes at the end of practice, one of us would get called to the line to shoot two free throws.  If both of them were made, everyone could go home.  If not, everyone would stay and run a little while longer. Practicing the types of pressure we would endure in a real game; all of this honed our skill, and the camaraderie that was built through it, year after year, turned Myrtle into a force to be reckoned with on the court. Coach Thomas was one of those men that you wanted to make happy. When we won, we celebrated.  When we lost, we contemplated – which often involved thinking about our loss as we ran laps around the gym for an hour, or until we puked.  But the training, the instruction, the reward of winning, the good graces of our coach, the legacy of great basketball, they all combined to created a burning desire within us to zealously pursue victory and to furiously hate losing.

The zeal for winning I developed in basketball, carries into everything I do.  Sure there have been seasons of my life where I’ve been a little more battered by the storms, and my zeal wanes a bit, but because I hate losing with such a passion, I endure. Some of the men I shared those six years with had more natural talent for the game than I did.  They didn’t endure the same frustration that I did to improve.  Even today, I’ll walk into our church’s gym and practice my shot.  I never want to lose what I gained while I am still able to do it. When I’m frustrated, or running out of creative steam, practicing free throws is therapeutic for me. It reminds me of the hard work and discipline that I subjected myself to for those six years.  The extra hours of practice at the gym in the summer months and on Saturdays, it all comes back to me when I step up to that line, set my balance, and exercise the correct form of a basketball shot that I learned in 7th grade.

I’ve heard that Larry Bird would shoot 500 free throws a day, from his fifth grade year, to the day he retired from the NBA. Zeal, folks.  We need more of it.  We need to recapture the competitive spirit in our communities.  You don’t have to be an athlete to nurture your competitive spirit.  You set dreams and goals for yourself that are out of reach from where you currently stand, and work toward them. Fairness and sportsmanship have their place, and they should be a part of your strategy to win, but they should never take the place of winning. Our president wants to make America great again. I say we don’t need a president to do that for us. We only need to return to the ideals of vigorous competition and a zeal for winning in all areas of our lives.  Maybe then we’ll see greatness rising on our horizon.