I got to thinking about sports and kids and teams that enjoy success (in terms of score) and suffer failure. If you play sports long enough, your body will fail, at least in terms of what you did at 18 compared to what you can do at 28 or 68. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to keep playing, you have to recast what it means to succeed or even have fun for that matter. Sometimes as a 16-year-old you have to do a redo of measuring success and failure because of injury.

I’ve often heard people say that it is no fun to lose. But if that were true, there would be no reason to ever compete because ultimately you will lose, either on the scoreboard or on the watch that times your effort. We place an extremely high value on winning, particularly as Americans, and I’m good with that, as long as losing doesn’t discourage you from remaining in the arena or play.

I was stamped almost at birth with the idea that playing is good. My mother was not an athlete in the truest sense because growing up in the Great Depression girls really didn’t have the opportunity to play organized sports. But somehow, somewhere, she learned the value of play and stitched it into the fabric of her children’s lives. Her kind of play wasn’t organized by Little League coaches or AAU teams. We were taught to simply play, any time, all the time, alone or with our siblings or neighborhood kids.

We carried our ball gloves on tractors and in pick-up trucks and when a piece of farm equipment broke and we were separated from balls and gloves, we used dirt clods and sticks to play until the machinery was fixed and work continued. It’s probably why I battled boredom once I got to school. Play was greatly curtailed aside from recess.

Winning was always important and because of a culture of great sports teams in our little farming community and the stories of uncles and cousins and our dad who played in state tournaments, we won…a lot. But it was never paramount to the importance of play, which carried me through a couple of dark years in high school when physical changes and injuries in football kept me on the bench. But my ethos of play made me look forward to practice which ultimately led to a year of high school success and a lifetime of enjoying the art of play.

It’s why I moved from high school football and baseball to college intramurals, a stint on the UNI baseball and judo teams, to learning to cross country ski and racing for several years competitively, to running until it became counter-productive to my back and joints, to handball and then racquetball to backpacking the Rocky Mountain wilderness from Colorado to the Canadian border, to upland game bird hunting and weight lifting.

In my years as a runner (almost 20 in all) I was introduced to cardiologist turned runner, author and speaker, Dr. James Sheehan whose book, “Running and Being,” was transformative, because his view of play was almost identical to mine. He didn’t run to compete and win (although he was a master’s champion runner), he ran as a way to play.

“When I run the roads, I am a saint,” he wrote. “For that hour, I am an Assisi wearing the least and meanest of clothes. I am Gandhi, the young London law student, trotting 10 or 12 miles a day and then going to a cheap restaurant to eat his fill of bread. I am Thoreau, the solitary seeking union with the world around him. On the roads, poverty, chastity and obedience come naturally. I am one of the poor in spirit who will see God. My chastity is my completion in the true Eros, which is play. And the Ten Commandments are the way the world works.”

Basically, play got his mind and body and soul going in the same direction.

Which brings me to the point of winning and losing. In any year, at any given time, you have individual athletes and teams who struggle to win. The fact is, in competitive athletics some individuals and some teams are better than others, often times through no fault of their own, sometimes because they don’t put in the time and effort to excel. But in terms of the benefit of play, the scoreboard is not the final judge.

There was a time when few men could beat me consistently in racquetball. There was a short time in the late 1970s where few could beat me in a 10K cross country ski race. A couple of years ago I decided to compete in the Iowa Games cross country competition just to see if I could still do a competitive race. The conditions were horrible (frozen and refrozen icy snow) and most who showed up decided to opt out of the full race. Organizers actually altered what it would take to earn a medal. I didn’t take the option. I fell several times, struggled as the oldest in the race to keep up, but finished, dead last among those who did the entire course. A University of Iowa student who did the entire race and won without getting a medal, stayed to watch me finish and told me it was the craziest and most courageous thing he’d ever seen. A really attractive young woman who opted for a single lap but stayed to the end to get her medal gave me a pat on the back.

Three months after my heart attack we had a 10-inch snowfall and I skied again (a little over two miles) and won because my damaged and repaired heart kept me alive.

Last week I dragged my aching knees out on the racquetball court, playing three times and one of those times some of my old skills actually returned. The final judge of that competition was that it was fun, I felt better physically and mentally although my knee hurt more.

So compete at any age and any level. Throw your heart into the idea of winning. But if you don’t, make sure at the end of the day you have played. And enjoy.

“Boredom, like beauty, is in the mind of the beholder. There is no such thing as an uninteresting subject. The only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”

G.K. Chesterson

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