The two competitors stared across the mat at each other. When the whistle sounded they approached each other, circled, searching for an opening. Then one of the wrestlers shot forward, grabbed the other one's leg, pulling him to the mat. For a few seconds, the second wrestler didn't realize what had happened. Soon he was on his back and the referee slapped the mat. "Pin."
The wrestling match was over. "How fast, coach?" was the winner's question. "Thirty-eight seconds" was the reply. "Yes!" came the excited response. Then the winning boy looked back at his defeated foe. The gym class competition had been an obvious mismatch. The first wrestler had missed making the varsity team by a single point during tryouts. The other was an awkward, young man who did not excel in sports.At that moment, the 38-second win was just a hollow victory. The other boys in the class knew it, and the winner realized it, too. What would he say to his friend and competitor who still sat stunned on the mat, his lip quivering? The first wrestler hurried back to his defeated friend, extended his hand, pulled him to his feet, and hugged him. "I'm sorry," he sputtered. "I didn't mean to embarrass you. I was excited I won. I was not thinking for a minute about you. Are you all right? Can I do anything?"
There was a long pause, the gym class totally silent. Then the defeated wrestler said, "Let me have a rematch sometime . . . in about 10 years."
That day, two young men learned an important lesson in sportsmanship. It's one thing to lose graciously, it's another - entirely different - matter to win graciously. Too often our initial response is similar to the winning wrestler's: We want to exult in our victories, shout them aloud, let others know "We're No. 1!" What thought do we have for the feelings of those individuals or teams that finish last or even second?
True winners in life don't flaunt their victories, nor do they require adulation of others. Cheers should not be reserved just for the winners, but also for the losers - cheers for doing their best, regardless of the final score.
Too often, however, sports and sporting events are exaggerated to monumental proportions. Entire seasons hinge on whether a team wins or loses a single game. More often than not, "the game" takes on a larger importance than the worth of the individual participants. By becoming overly excited about winning, we find that losing - when it occurs - becomes all the more bitter.
Does every competition really require a winner and a loser? Do we judge the end results by what's posted on the scoreboard or by how well we played? Real winners know there are no losers - only competitors. Sometimes we finish first, sometimes we don't. That is what builds character and shows us the true meaning of sportsmanship.
Building character takes effort. It takes courage to hold one's head up after losing, but true victors also acknowledge their opponents' efforts. If we focus only on the final score, we may have missed the true purpose of competition. We may have failed to notice a great individual performance. If we do our best and come up short ourselves, who is to say our effort was lacking? Only we can determine how we ran the race or played the game.
During the 1925 U.S. Open Championship, amateur golfer Bobby Jones assessed a one-stroke penalty on himself because his ball moved as he addressed it. No one around him saw the ball move. Only he knew it had. When later praised for his sportsmanship, Jones bristled: "There's only one way to play the game." Jones lost the championship in playoff the next day - he would go on to win dozens of others, later, but perhaps that was his greatest victory. No one had to ever question his integrity or his character as a competitor. (And Then Jack Said to Arnie . . . A Collection of the Greatest Golf Stories of All Time, p. 86.)
There is no shame in calling a foul on ourselves or admitting our mistakes on the playing field. We also have no reason to "put down" our opponents - either before, during or after competition. Mockery and taunting have no place in our athletic life just as they have no place in our everyday doings. Our attitude should be to promote and applaud good play all around - in whatever competition we are in.
In speaking to participants in Church sports, President Ezra Taft Benson advised, "Sportsmanship is the spirituality in athletics, and we believe that the Church athletic program is a spiritual program. If it wasn't, we wouldn't continue it, because our purpose is to build men and women of character and spirituality." (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 437.)
The true victory in life is competing honestly and fairly. Only those who know the sweet taste of so competing can relish in the personal effort it takes to achieve it. The same determination, integrity and attitude required on the playing field are needed in the game of life, too.