We make a big deal out of winning. In fact, we can be pretty obnoxious about it between the fist pumping and hip pounding.
So it was refreshing to tune into ESPN and watch the Little League coach from Cumberland, Rhode Island, gather his players in a circle in short right field after his team had just lost a wild game, 8-7, to a team from Chicago. The game came down to the last out, and the loss eliminated coach Dave Belisle’s team from the Little League World Series.
There were tears on the faces of his players, and a few sobs could be heard as well.
And then the coach told his players something that made you wish you and your children both could have played for someone like Dave Belisle.
First, he made sure his players weren’t hanging their heads. Eyes, he told them. He needed to see their eyes. They were moist with tears, but they were glued to the coach.
“There’s no disappointment in your effort – the whole tournament, the whole season,” he told them. “It’s been an incredible journey.
“We fought. Look at the score – 8-7, 12-10 in hits. We came to the last out. We didn’t quit. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!”
Belisle’s eyes were clear; he wanted to make sure his players could see through his own eyes all the way into his heart. There may be tears later, but only because his time as their coach was over.
Pride, he said, was the thing he, the coaching staff and players would take away from their experience.
“You’re going to take that for the rest of your lives, what you provided for the town of Cumberland,” he said. “You had the whole place jumping, right? You had the whole state jumping. You had New England jumping. You had ESPN jumping. OK?
“You want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don’t quit. They like guys who play the game the right way. If everyone would play baseball like the Cumberland Americans, this would be the greatest game.”
Then Belisle told his young players what they needed to hear: how to put their loss in its proper perspective.
“It’s OK to cry, because we’re not going to play baseball together anymore,” he said. “But we’re going to be friends forever. Friends forever. Our Little League careers have ended on the most positive note that could ever be. OK? Ever be.
“There’s only going to be one team that’s going to walk out of here as World Series champions. Only one. We got down to the nitty-gritty. We’re one of the best teams in the world. Think about that for a second. In the world! Right?”
And then, with a live audience looking in and television cameras hovering around his huddle, Belisle told his players something that happens frequently, but rarely publicly.
“I love you guys,” he said in a tone that left no doubt of his sincerity. “I’m gonna love you forever. You’ve given me the most precious moment in my athletic and coaching career, and I’ve been coaching a long time – a looooong time. I’m getting to be an old man. I need memories like this, I need kids like this. You’re all my boys. You’re the boys of summer.”
The Cumberland Americans walked off the field in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, their heads held high and their spirits, and their pride, not just intact, but soaring.
It was a brilliant life lesson for us all.
For all the bright, shiny and pithy quotes we throw out about winning – about how it’s not everything, it’s the only thing (Vince Lombardi) – we pay little attention to what happens when we don’t win.
It’s an oversight borne of arrogance as much as anything else.
We should pay more attention to the great words of Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph:
“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.”