While one could take the position that, yes, sports do build character, there seems no argument that dealing with the ups and downs of competition – sometimes with little time to think and often in a public forum – truly does reveal integrity, emotional strength, courage, and moral fiber.
Athletic events, of course, aren’t real life. That said, the lessons we learn preparing for those events, competing in them, and coaching in them provide vital training for times when life does get real – sometimes very real.
Saturday evening, Collegiate’s varsity boys basketball team played in the Virginia Challenge in which four VISAA teams from Richmond played counterparts from Northern Virginia on the Dale Travis Court at Trinity Episcopal. The Cougars drew St. Stephen’s-St. Agnes from Alexandria, a very talented, physical squad (now 13-2) whose roster includes nine players 6-5 or taller.
It was Collegiate’s third road game against a tough opponent (Trinity first, then Woodberry Forest) in five days and second within 24 hours. SSSA jumped ahead 12-9 after a quarter, increased its lead to 29-19 at the half, then – intensifying the full-court pressure they applied for 32 minutes – used a 19-1 third quarter to put the game out of reach en route to a 62-27 victory.
Remember: This is a very good Collegiate squad. It’s 9-6 (3-1 in the Prep League) and Times-Dispatch Invitational Tournament champion. But a 35-point loss? And an array of errant shots? And a ton of turnovers, steals, and layups? And a feeling of whatever-could-go-wrong-would-go-wrong?
Whether you were on the court facing the opponent’s swarming defense, waiting your turn to get in the game, directing the squad from the bench, or cheering on the Cougars from the stands, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Finally, it was over. The teams dutifully lined up, walked through the handshake line saying little, if anything, then adjourned to their respective locker rooms as the contestants for the day’s finale took the court.
Stay around sports long enough, and you know each team’s feeling, expressed concisely by the old Wide World of Sports catchphrase: “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
Each brings its challenges: remaining composed, humble, and gracious in victory and sustaining competitive spirit, displaying grace, and finding meaning when events don’t go as planned.
The essence of both is sportsmanship, which has always been, and always will be, the number-one core value of our athletic program.
The Cougars never backed down. Sure, there was frustration, but, even with the odds of a comeback nil, they stood tall, held their heads high, and moved on to the next possession rather than dwelling on the last. If there was ever a temptation to say words akin to “Enough is enough,” they kept them to themselves. In this in-your-face world, that’s quite a mature approach. And twice in the final minute, when it would have been easy to let the clock run out, our guys were diving after loose basketballs because it was the “team” thing to do and they knew to compete until the final horn. There’s heart and dignity in that, the numbers on the scoreboard notwithstanding.
Suffice it to say, Coach Del Harris and his staff will fix the X’s and O’s. That’s the easy part.
Their challenge – and their guys’ – is to put Saturday’s less-than-pleasant passage behind them and consider several important points.
One is that it was just a game, regardless of the importance we place on it.
Another is that most of us experience events in life that hurt, sometimes very badly. The key is whether we internalize that hurt and use it unproductively or use it, instead, as fuel for the future.
Still another, perhaps most important, is this: sports is truly a metaphor for life. Life, at times, will attack you with full-court pressure. It, like a trapping 1-2-1-1, can be ruthless, withering, uncompromising, and remorseless.
A 35-point loss on a Saturday in January, painful as it is in the moment, does not define a season or a person. The response does. The Cougars will be just fine. No doubt, here.