The heart of sports: dealing with disappointment

Thirty teams are NOT going to the Super Bowl.

For 30 NFL teams, their season ended in disappointment.

In two weeks, whichever team LOSES the Super Bowl, the fans will feel SUPER-disappointed.

Whichever team WINS the Super Bowl will face disappointment the NEXT season.  The expectation will be high, but they will likely not repeat as champions.  Few teams do.

I did a sermon once called “The Curse of Winning the Super Bowl.”  The curse is–expectation soars.  Fans become merciless.  By the end of his career coaching the Steelers, even after winning four Super Bowls, Chuck Noll was being booed.

Is there anything more depressing than sports!

Sports may be worse for fans than for the athletes themselves.  These days, the pros are all millionaires.  They go home to luxury homes and an easy lifestyle.  Fans, however, have to budget for an entire year in order to attend games.  Driving, parking, tickets, refreshments…And then they spend four hours at the ball park, only to return home frozen and upset.

Is there anything more depressing than sports!  So much of it entails disappointment.

One evening last July when the Pittsburgh Pirates lost at PNC Park to St. Louis after getting walloped for 20 runs, Pirate reliever Mark Melancon remarked, “Baseball is built around failure.”

Most players can expect to fail at the plate 8-9 times out of 10.  El Roy Face, one of the pioneers of relief pitching–who still holds the record for highest winning percentage in the Major Leagues–gave up 17 walk-off home runs in his career!

El Roy owns the record for winning percentage in the Major Leagues.  It’s .947.  The record occurred in 1959 when he went 18-1.  A few years ago, El Roy was attending the Pirates’ Fantasy Camp when he got picked on by Steve Blass.  Big deal, Blass was saying, that you won 18 games–you gave up 17 walk-off homers in your career!

El Roy calmly replied, “Eighteen is more than seventeen.”

Barely breaking even is what most Major League teams can expect to do.  Even a team contending for a division title loses nearly as many times as it wins.  The Pirates made the post-season last year by going 88-74.  A difference in only 14 games out of 162 decided whether they got into the playoffs.  That means they could lose as many times as they won, so long as they won only one more time every nine games over the course of six months!

Before a Major League season BEGINS, any fan may say, “My team is going to lose at least seventy times.”

Seventy losses!?  And those are the BEST teams.

And the hard truth is Melancon could have extended his remark to ALL sports:  “ALL sports are built around failure.”

In the NBA, one of the sharpest shooters in pro basketball history was Jerry West.  Yet he missed over half of his shots!  His career field-goal percentage was .474.  Wilt Chamberlain, who DUNKED most of the time, raising his field-goal percentage, still had a career mark of only .583.

This is the very essence of sports:  dealing with disappointment.  A player in any sport will fail countless times in one game, let alone in a season.  A player who can not handle disappointment–can not function as an athlete.  Failure will lead to frustration, frustration will lead to being all the more up-tight, the anxiety will lead to all the more failure.

Some athletes have been so paralyzed by fear of failure–they have what is called “performance anxiety.”  Everybody in the Yankee dugout would hold their breath any time a grounder was hit to second baseman Chuck Knoblauch.  His throws to first base were so unpredictable.

Fear of failure can paralyze.

Fear of failure can demoralize.

In the film Chariots of Fire, the sprinter Harold Abrahams loses a race in college for the first time in his entire life.  He is so devastated, he resolves to quit!  He says, “I won’t run if I can’t win.”

His girl friend responds, “You can’t win if you don’t run!”

How do we pick ourselves up after failure?

One of the most famous referees in Western Pennsylvania was Red Mihalik (who refereed basketball in the Olympics).  A sports writer once told me that Red Mihalik said, “If I make only ten mistake in a game, I’ve had a good game.”

How do we deal with disappointment?

When I was a student at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I did an internship as a chaplain at Shadyside Hospital.  One day, I heard this (true) story:

Mario Lemieux, during his playing days, had a chronic bad back.  It got so bad, he had to be hospitalized.  He was admitted to Shadyside Hospital.  So that he wouldn’t be bothered, Mario was placed on an upper-floor.  The floor was off-limits to the public.  Mario needed rest.  The hospital tried protecting him.

Didn’t work!  A cleaning lady woke him up one morning at 4 o’clock, asking for his autograph.

The cleaning lady wound up getting fired.

WHY would a hospital employee do such thing as bothering a patient who is placed on a floor that is off-limits?

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out.  This cleaning lady had a son–or maybe a grandson–who whined, “GET me his autograph!”

She didn’t want her kid to be disappointed.  She didn’t know how to handle disappointment.  She got out of line–lost her job.

These situations may be found humorous.  But inability to deal with disappointment can get downright deadly.

It seems every week we read about a guy who gets dumped by his girlfriend, can’t take it, won’t let her go, and even if she gets a restraining order, he still breaks into her house and kills both her and her new boyfriend.

It seems every week we read about a shooting at a work place or at a mall–where a guy shoots his ex-wife or his ex-boss.

Inability to deal with disappointment can get deadly.

In 1998, a 13-year-old boy at a middle school was dumped by his girlfriend.  Some days later, the adolescent boy went to his grandfather’s house, got hold of a rifle and two semi-automatic rifles, and recruited an 11-year-old.  They loaded the weapons into a van.  The 13-year old drove.  They parked in a wooded area outside of the school grounds and positioned themselves.  The 11-year-old went into the school–and pulled the fire alarm.  Students and teachers came pouring out into the parking lot.  The two boys opened fire.

Four students and a teacher were killed.  Others were wounded.  That was the shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1998.

One day, I googled “school shootings.” I limited the search to only school shootings since 1990, and hit “print.”  Seven pages came out–in small print!

The Secret Service has done a study of school shootings.  It has determined that most school shootings occur because of–disappointment.  A kid has been bullied, somebody has been dumped–it’s almost always a male.  Only two times has a school shooting been done by a female.

For females, the sad truth is that rather than kill others, they often deal with disappointment by killing themselves.

How many in our society do not know how to cope?

It is one of the most important things adults can teach young people.

When I was a seminary student, my favorite professor was the Rev. Dr. Susan Nelson (whose biography I wrote).  She had two young daughters.  One day, Dr. Nelson told the class, “When my first daughter lost a toy, I’d go right out and buy her another one.  When my second daughter lost a toy, I’d sit and cry with her.”

Teaching kids how to cope with disappointment is one of the most important things adults can do.

Sadly, the one area of life ready-made for teaching about dealing with disappointment is sports–since disappointment is a regular occurrence.  But often what results is ugly.  The worst behavior is not from the kids–it’s from the adults.

I officiate five sports (baseball, softball, soccer, futsal and field hockey).  Of all the sports, parental and coaching behavior is worst in soccer.  And it’s all the worse the younger the players.  I have a saying when I’m refereeing a U-9 soccer match.  “The kids are 9, the parents are 2.”

In the Fall of 2000, the new school year was beginning at the University of Indiana.  The head basketball coach, Bobby Knight, was walking across the campus when a freshman saw him.  The 19-year-old called out, ‘Hey, Knight, what’s up!”

Bobby Knight, who stands 6-foot-5, grabbed the kid by an arm, pulled him over and said, “Hey, son, it’s Mister Knight or Coach Knight.”

The coach had been warned by the school administration about laying a hand on his players.  When news of his grabbing a student became known, Knight was instantly fired.

Commentator Dick Vitale remarked, “Why did he have to GRAB the kid?  Why couldn’t he just let it go?”

The REASON he couldn’t let it go was–he felt slighted, and he wanted justice NOW.  When people demand justice immediately, what often results is INjustice.  We all do it.  We act too fast.  We make a situation worse.  The demand for justice NOW often results in INjustice.

Y’know, Bobby Knight WAS right.

“Hey, Knight, what’s up!”

“Hey, son, it’s Mister Knight or Coach Knight.”

He WAS right, correcting a smart-alecky freshman. The problem was–the coach wanted justice NOW.  He was disappointed.  He wanted it fixed NOW.  But what usually results when we act too fast is–we make the situation worse.

Why not calm down, take a breathe, and say, “C’mere, son.  What’s your name?”

The freshman would have sent, “My name is Kent Harvey.”

“Y’know, Kent, if I met your father, would you want me to say, ‘Hey, Harvey, what’s up!’  Or would you prefer that I say, ‘Hello, Mister Harvey’ ?  Don’t you think I myself prefer you speak to ME that way?”

A situation CAN be turned around.  What’s needed is:  We need to take a breath.  We need to pause.  Because to act instantly tit-for-tat often just makes a situation worse.

Dealing well with disappointment BEGINS with–NOT responding instantly.  We must be strong enough at first just to TAKE it!

This is the meaning of Jesus’ teaching:  turn the other cheek.

It does NOT mean:  Let people walk all over you.

“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39, New International Version)

Notice the detail:  “If someone strikes you on the RIGHT cheek…”

Most people are right-handed.  If a right-handed person throws a punch, he will hit someone not on the RIGHT side of the face, but on the LEFT side.

But this is not what’s happening.  A person is being hit on the RIGHT cheek.

How does a right-handed person hit someone on the RIGHT side of the face?

It isn’t a punch.  It’s a back-hand.

In other words, it’s a slap.  A slap is meant as an insult.

Jesus is saying:  When you are slighted–when you are disappointed–the first way to respond is:  Show that you are strong enough to take it!

Thus, turn the other cheek.

It doesn’t mean:  do NOT respond to an injustice.  It means:  THINK about how to respond–so that we do not make things worse.  To THINK, we first need to pause.  To pause, we need to show that we are strong enough to absorb the disappointment.

I wonder how many of us have seen the film Moby Dick (with Gregory Peck as the captain).  When the great white whale first appears, it is a frightful scene not just because of his enormous size, but because Moby Dick has countless harpoons sticking in his back.  The harpoons stick out like porcupine quills.

Only the strongest whale could carry on with all of those harpoons sticking in him.  The same goes for a person.  The person who can carry on in spite of being barbed by disappointment, worry or insult is the stronger.

Normally, as kids, we estimate a person’s strength by thinking:  “He doesn’t take any crap!”  In reality, the person of strength DOES take it.  Because responding immediately this-for-that usually makes a situation worse.  A person must first be strong enough to absorb disappointment.

One day last year I was refereeing a soccer match.  It was between two freshman teams.  The home team was Norwin High School, outside of Pittsburgh.  One player on the Norwin team made a nice play, stealing the ball.  But when he passed the opponent that he stole the ball from, he got elbowed in the back.

Before I could blow the whistle, the player who got elbowed instantly turned to the opponent and raised his hands.  A punch or a push was certain to follow.  But then–the player who was fouled dropped his hands.  He just stood there.  I blew the whistle.  But I had to call only ONE foul, because the player who was fouled held back from retaliating.

When play resumed, I singled out this teenage boy and said, “Hey, No. 17–way to keep your cool.  Good self-discipline!”

His teammates who heard me began clapping.

People who show self-restraint when they are disappointed deserve to be complimented.  It shows strength of character.  By noticing, we are helping young people re-define what “strength” is.  Normally, youths think the strong person retaliates instantly–doesn’t take anything.  In reality, the stronger person DOES take it.

When the game was over, I went up to the coach and–with all of the players huddled around–I praised the player for his self-control.

He didn’t make a situation worse.  He was strong enough at first just to take it.

That’s the first step in dealing with disappointment.  Show that we are strong enough at first just to take it.  Because, when hurt, our urge is for justice NOW.  The rush to respond usually just makes a situation worse.





One thought on “The heart of sports: dealing with disappointment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s