It seems to me that, culturally, we have a misconstrued understanding of the meaning of “victory”. We oscillate between two extremes. At one extreme, we have an obsession with “winning” as an end to be attained at all costs. Lie, cheat, steal; all fine in the pursuit of a championship or a title. At the other, we have the “everyone’s a winner” mentality with all of its various manifestations. Of course, both of these understandings of winning are false and are dangerous to mind, body, and soul, but they both have their root in something very good, and that good is victory.
If you’ve listened to a podcast conversation I had with Rich Moss about mantras, mottos, and slogans, you already know that I’m a big believer in the power of a good quote. In particular, I’m a sucker for the inspirational one-liners from the great coaches and athletes of the twentieth century, many of which pithy remarks have important truth to them. Some of them, though, need to be tweaked and refined to help us move toward a truer understanding of the purpose and importance of winning.
“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
Winning is not “the only thing”. In a great many cases winning has become an end unto itself. When we seek victory for the sole purpose of winning, we make it into an idol; we begin to worship it and to make sacrifices to it. Most commonly, family, friends, and personal integrity are the things sacrificed on this altar of victory. This is true whether the victory sought is in the arena of sports, politics, academics, or professional life. Someone who is truly determined to “win at all costs” will seek it at the cost of losing his morals, his friends, his leisure, and his happiness. So of course winning can’t actually be “the only thing”.
“You’re All Winners!”
Winning must be a means to an end; it is a good, but not a good in itself. It must be used or sought in the service of a good and noble end. But here we run into another problem, and one that has become increasingly common in American culture and education over the past three or four decades.
In many cases, the end being pursued by “winning” is self-esteem. While the pursuit and practice of esteeming one’s self is hazardous in its own right, addressing the particular way that “winning” is being used to achieve that self-esteem is more within the scope of this article. When self-esteem, or equality for that matter, is the goal, the idea of “winning” gets twisted so that what is really being celebrated is not authentic victory, but participation.
And maybe that’s fine. Perhaps participation should be celebrated. Just don’t call it winning. Because it’s not. When we say “everyone is a winner,” we not only lie, but also dilute the value of the competitors’ effort as well as the victors’ accolades or awards. And when adolescent boys experience that kind of patronizing treatment, they see right through it, and any possibility for growth in self-esteem, or, more appropriately, confidence, is lost.
The Virtue is in the Middle
Between the dangers of making an idol of victory and that of using false victory to bolster our idolatry of ourselves, there is a proper understanding of and relationship with winning that we need to help our boys attain. Winning must be a means to a good and noble end. But what might that end be, and how can we use victory to pursue it without falling into the aforementioned pits? After all, while winning is not the only thing, it is a critical tool in the work of forming boys into men.
“Love for the Hard Battle”
One of the most formative aspects of this tool actually has more to do with the nature of the competition than with the competition’s outcome. Whether in the field of sports, arts, academics, or otherwise, competition itself provides to us a training ground for confronting the challenges of life. By competing against a strong adversary, competitors grow in strength, endurance, and fortitude, all of which will serve them well when the real trials come. On this topic, legendary basketball coach John Wooden encouraged others to love the hard battle, “knowing it offers the opportunity to be at your best when your best is required.” Competition allows our boys to become hardened by battle long before they have to face any true enemies.
In this sense, it may be said that it would be better for a boy to suffer defeat in a hard battle, rather than to gain “victory” in a match that offered little or no contest. Winning an easy game doesn’t mean much (though losing an “easy” game means a lot!). So, while facing weaker opponents is sometimes unavoidable, it is always preferable to pit yourself against competition near or even above your own level of talent.
“Conquer we must…conquer we shall.” —Winston Churchill
Boys need to fight. Boys need to battle. Boys need to conquer. It is inherent in his masculinity for a boy to desire to be a protector, a provider, a defender. And to be these things, he must also be a victor. This is one of the many reasons why here at The Heights we give the boys so many opportunities to compete. Whether it is in the historical re-enactments of the third-grade Hoplite Battle or the eighth-grade Battle of Philippi, the seemingly constant wrestling matches, fort battles, or kickball games in The Valley, formal lunchtime debates between Upper School students, flashcard and vocabulary elimination games in math and Latin classes, the famous Clan Games of Thud, Bullvalla, and “The Heights’s Strongest Man”, or interscholastic athletic contests, boys are presented with opportunities to grapple, struggle, and conquer on a daily basis.
And while they are vanquishing their foes, boys grow in the confidence that only comes from authentic, hard-fought victory. Such trials and successes are proof to a boy that he is on the right track—that he is working hard and doing right. And these victories, these conquests should be celebrated.
Not celebrated because, “Oh, isn’t Johnny so great!”, as the cult of self-esteem would have him believe. No, but celebrated because, through the contest, the boy is growing stronger: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And perhaps the most important result of his victories, and the greatest cause for celebration, is that, if directed properly, these successes will cause him to grow in the confidence that he will be able to conquer his own weaknesses, temptations, base passions, and vices.
Omnia Dei Gloriae
The most important end to be achieved through our victories is, of course, the most important end of all things: the glorification of God. It might sound silly to talk about a middle-school soccer game, or a contest between groups of cardboard-clad, broomstick-spear toting ten-year-olds giving greater glory to the omniscient, omnipotent Creator of all things, but remember what Saint Irenaeus says: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” I can think of very few instances when a boy looks more fully alive than when he’s locked in fierce competition and triumphing.
In victory, a boy can glorify God in a number of different ways. Most simply, he can offer the contest and the triumph to God out of love. Any time we use well the talents that we’ve been given, we glorify Him who gave us those gifts. And a boy can do this just by playing his heart out, on the field, on the stage, or at the desk. Pursuing greatness in a worthy pursuit glorifies God in ourselves, but also creates the opportunity for our opponents to do so, because it challenges them to elevate their own performance and to reach greater heights.
A boy can certainly give greater glory to God just by competing hard and pushing to do his very best, win or lose. But winning is of great importance. Victory is important to our mission as Christians in the world. It is a tool by which we can evangelize and change our modern society and save souls. “Winning” is something that the world respects and admires.
This is why it is so important for us, as a school, to excel in every area that we pursue. If we field sports teams, they should win. If we enter competitions for band and choir, we should strive to earn the highest honors possible. Our debate teams should triumph over their competition. We need to care deeply about winning because winning will increase our prestige as individuals and institutions. That prestige will draw attention to all of the things we are doing.
It will cause others to emulate us and try to replicate our actions and our methods. And if others look at us as examples of success, they should also see us as examples of virtue. Our victories should be a door through which God can enter the lives of everyone who witnesses them: teammates, classmates, coaches, teachers, younger students, parents, siblings, referees and adjudicators, and opponents. If we’re really trying to live virtuous lives, and if we are really striving for success in all of our pursuits, all for the glory of God, all of those people can encounter God through us. And then, through a bunch of adolescent boys, He can change the world.