It's The Losing That Counts

20th November 2009

Clare Finney reflects on lacrosse – and life…

Whatever the outcome of the next election, my heart goes out to anyone that finds MP Ed Balls on their football team, because, in the playground of Labour’s education department, there is really only one phrase that never goes out of fashion: ‘It’s the taking part that counts’.

At best, this is a cliché of the most irritating sort; at worst, it is simply not true: far from the be all and end all, the partaking is just the beginning… a tacit recognition that some will, inevitably, lose.

This historically unwelcome reality has become something of a taboo amongst Labour’s school policy makers, who in recent years have concentrated their efforts on reducing competitiveness and ensuring that ‘all must have prizes’.

A more politically minded observer might make a witty remark here about Labour being ‘in denial’ – but it’s not my place to make snide remarks about a losing side. Especially not here, not now. On the contrary – it’s the very experience of losing that I wish to champion… because if winning isn’t everything, then losing must have something to recommend it.

Remember your own experience of school sports? Oh, for those halcyon days when winning was winning, losing was losing, and the word ‘Games’ meant three hours of actual, grueling physical activity - not 35 minutes of vacuous ‘physical education’.

Rose-tinted spectacles aside, there are not many who would look back at their time on the pitch and regret it. Playing lacrosse for St Helen’s Second Team had its moments, to be sure, but what the experience of brutally early mornings, bellowing coaches and bitter English weather sometimes lacked in enjoyment, it more than made up in edification.

After all, what better preparation can there be for future failures than being defeated by almost every school south of the Watford Gap? My grandmother may have lost no time in telling me that life wasn’t fair, but
it wasn’t until I had to watch long-legged, swishy-haired lacrosse teams wave their shiny new alloy sticks in victory dances for the tenth consecutive game that I began to understand what she meant.

Which brings me to my most important point. In concentrating on the negatives of failure – the humiliation, the feeling of worthlessness, the seeds of self-doubt – we tend to forget just how incredibly funny the experience of losing can be.

Even today, the image of us all running onto the pitch – two minutes after the whistle-blow, dragging our ‘vintage’ wooden sticks, hitching up our ridiculous pleated skirts and looking for all the world as though we’d just stepped out of Enid Blyton or Angela Brazil – is enough to make me laugh out loud.

With hindsight, it seems we were destined for defeat. Our sticks were too old, our players were too polite, and – for reasons I am still unable to fathom – our legs were always that bit shorter than those of our opponents.

‘A’ for effort, ‘F’ for achievement; in the two years I spent on the St Helen’s Second, we were blessed with an almost unbroken run of spectacular losses. The St Helen’s Firsts, on the other hand, won nearly every game they played.

Yet where the difference between the two teams was most pronounced was not in their winning, but in their losing. Unaccustomed as they were to public slaughter, on those rare occasions that the First team did lose a match the coach home was sure to be filled with a glacial silence, punctuated only by ill-disguised accusations, acrid retorts and the odd, sullen commiseration.

For the hapless second team, however, the coach was invariably a source of a celebration. Munching happily through our undeserved chocolate bars, we congratulated each other on our almost-tackles, our almost-saves, our almost-goals (and, occasionally, the Actual Goal) with as much enjoyment as if we’d won the match.

What at the time was ‘only a game’ came to be an invaluable lesson in the years that followed. The ability to laugh at your own inadequacies may not make failed university applications and disappointing exam results any less frustrating, but it does make them that bit easier to bear.

Indeed, in nine failures out of ten, it is only a matter of time before the bitter taste of failure is replaced with bursts of laughter as you start to recollect the impossible questions, your absurd answers, the faux pas, the social blunders and many more metaphorical ‘own goals’ to which, sooner or later, we all fall prey. At the time it was just part of the fun. Looking back, it seems that our irrepressible excitement upon simply surviving the sports pitch was really more of a test run for the far greater challenge of surviving failure itself.

Richard Bach, the American philosopher best known for Jonathan Livingston Seagull, once defined learning as ‘not whether we lose the game, but how we lose and how we've changed because of it and what we take away from it that we never had before, to apply to other games.’

As I reluctantly cast my eye down the list of failed endeavours that inspired this article, I am struck by just different my life would be today had any of them turned out otherwise. These mistakes – and what I learned from them, and what I did instead – constitute not only some of my funniest memories, but also my most defining.

As Richard Bach also said, ‘Losing, in a curious way, is winning’.

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