The season started with a gust of icy wind as players pulled pinnies over the top of sweatshirts, and pulled on two pairs of socks. A few flakes of snow started sticking to the rubber pellets on the turf. January was barely over and we were getting started on a long journey to May.
I looked at the group of anxious, chatty athletes, some stretching their quads, some passing the ball in small groups, some sending off last minute texts to moms who were wishing them luck.
I wanted them to be Winners.
Tryouts lasted a week. They ran, they fell down, they dropped the ball, they ripped holes in the net, they learned new moves, they iced shins and rubbed sore muscles, and then they sat by the phone waiting for the roster.
I wanted to choose Winners.
The chosen team started practice. They prepared for the first games. They wore their uniforms, they marched down to the fields in two lines, they did their pregame cheer, they sized up the competition, they took their place on the field. The whistle blew and the ball was up in the air.
I wanted them to be Winners.
They experienced victories, over and over, they found the net more than their opponents. They felt joy, they felt pressure, they felt frustration, they felt my frustration, they felt my joy. They dug deep, they looked left and they looked right for their teammates, they picked each other up, they watched the scoreboard. They counted points. They counted stats.
They wanted to be Winners.
The parents on the sideline cheered, they nervously watched the ends of practices, they filled water jugs, brought snacks, filled ice bags, shared hugs, and dried tears. They clenched their fists, they felt frustration, they felt pride.
They wanted their daughters to be Winners.
We reached the final four. We stood in the pouring rain, the dark as night clouds, the leaves blowing into our faces. We ran for shelter as the lightening horn blew. We huddled in the cold, wet shed waiting to get our chance.
We wanted to be Winners.
They took the field, I held my clipboard, I held my breath. We slipped, we dropped the ball, we gave up goals. We gave up more goals. We retreated to the shed at half time, we looked at each other, we were down 3 to 7. We had been winners all season long, how could we lose if we had built winners? The stands had grown quiet on our side as parents watched the winners who weren’t winning. Hope was slipping away. Time was running out.
I still wanted them be Winners.
But in that half time huddle we decided to stop being winners.
We wanted a new goal, because the scoreboard said we weren’t winning and we couldn’t control it no matter what we tried. We decided instead, to focus on playing for each other and not for an outcome. We decided to make each goal we scored a cry for another day of that season, another game, just one more chance to be what would never be again.
I couldn’t focus anymore on an outcome that I couldn’t control. I couldn’t build Winners because winning is a byproduct, not an action, not a thing, ot a person. It can’t be built. It can’t be bought. It can’t be trained. It happens by itself when something bigger is built, trained, earned.
They took the field. They stood in the pouring rain, their faces locked in determination. They glanced at each other and gave nods, this was about something new, their mindsets were changed.
They wanted to be bigger than Winners. They wanted to be Teammates.
The whistle blew and goal after goal slammed into the net. We were tied within minutes. The goalie became a wall, the defense became an impenetrable force, the midfielders intercepted everything within reach. As the clock counted down the stands were filled with cries of excitement. 13-10. The horn sounded and the team stormed the field, they had won. We had made a comeback that no one believed was possible.
They had done it, they were Winners.
But in that powerful, stirring, moving moment of winning, we all knew the truth.
We knew what we should have known from the beginning.
We weren’t building or becoming winners. It was never about the score, or the title, or the awards. Winning is fleeting, shallow, empty. It’s exciting and exhilarating but it fades with the sunset. I don’t want winners. I want so much more.
The journey wasn’t about us, or wins. It was about building something intangible and bigger than ourselves. It was about a connection, a devotion, love, commitment, sacrifice, support, unity, growth, confidence, risk, fears, failure, and strength.
In that game they taught me a lesson I’d never forget. From the very first day, they weren’t becoming winners at all.
They were becoming champions.
Dedicated to the team that taught me what it means to be a coach, and what we are really building on that field together. I never tried to build winners again.