Spirituality, Sports

Entering 2016 as a Loser

jose aldo crying locker

UFC’s Jose Aldo, weeping in his locker room, after his crushing 13-sec loss. He was undefeated for 10 years until December.

As someone who only really started to get into both watching and playing a sport these last couple years, I’ve come to realize why athletes and coaches so often compare sports with life.

In the sports I watch, losing has been one of the predominant themes this year. In boxing, Wladimir Klitschko, who has been the reigning undefeated heavyweight champ for 10 years—lost in a stunning upset to Tyson Fury. In MMA, the invincible superstar Rhonda Rousey got taken to school by Holly Holm; longtime champ Jose Aldo was KO’ed in 13 seconds by Conor McGregor. And the championship Niners I grew up with are currently tied with the Cowboys for last place in the NFL.

Perhaps these losses speak so loudly to me because I have felt the sting of loss more than once this year. Not the losing of loved ones, as I know some of you have, but the losing of battles. Some of the losses are a little too personal to share, but suffice to say, they are battles I’ve lost in my work, in personal relationships, in my spiritual life, and in my journey to pick up boxing at the same age most boxers retire.

One of my favorite TV characters of all time is Coach Taylor, of Friday Night Lights fame. And in the midst of a 26-0 shellacking, Taylor gives this storied locker room speech to his team during halftime:

Every man at some point in his life is going to lose a battle. He is going to fight and he is going to lose. But what makes him a man is that in the midst of that battle he does not lose himself. This game is not over, this battle is not over.

When a new year comes around, we usually look for that fresh start. But as a wannabe athlete…and mostly as someone who is now squarely in my adult years, there are rarely true fresh starts in life. Nor should there be. You can’t push the reset button in between rounds or during halftime. In real life as in sports, you must continue to fight. And even once this fight is over, the next one is just around the corner.

And while winning and losing does matter, it is not what ultimately matters. Most athletes, especially in fight sports, will tell you that the real battle isn’t with your opponent; the real battle is within yourself. Will you lose yourself in the face of this contest? What will be revealed about your character? And even if you end up losing, will you let that loss change you for better, or for worse? What makes him a man is that in the midst of that battle he does not lose himself. Even after we’ve left the ring or the field, this game is not over, this battle is not over.

And even if you ended up winning the game, it’s still possible to have lost…yourself.

As I enter into this new year, my losses are not far behind me. Some of them, I am still in the middle of experiencing. But the invitation that God has been giving to me at this threshold isn’t an invitation to a fresh start, but to keep fighting. And not just in the external battles of life; in fact, the invitation is more so into the internal struggle. Will I lose myself? Will I sacrifice my character, my values, or even my loved ones for the win? Or will I remain true? Will I grow? Will I allow the crucible of battle press and refine me to become the man God sent his Son to die for me to become?

With God’s grace, I sure hope so. We’ll see in 2017.

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