Losing is hard (oh, so hard sometimes) but it’s not unfair

April 20th, 2012

So. Our local professional hockey team’s season came to a heartbreaking end on Tuesday when the ZSC Lions (the team from Zürich) scored the winning goal with 2.5 seconds left to play in game seven of a seven game final series. I know, it’s an almost unbelievable scenario, yet there it was. SCB had gone up three games to one in the series and then lost three games in a row. Twice at home: once in overtime and then game seven with 2.5 seconds left in regulation play. The Small Boy was at both of those games and although the Small Boy was crushed on both occasions – he plays, after all, in the SCB youth program and knows a few of the players so his loyalty to the team runs deep – he didn’t cry.

A year ago, I’m pretty sure he would have cried. But Small Boy spent the winter on the ice, part of a team, sometimes winning and sometimes losing himself, and he’s learned how these things go. I don’t think he could quite articulate it yet, but I think he understands that you can play your best hockey, you can leave it all on the ice, and still lose. My mother-in-law calls it the “ungerechtigkeit” of sport – unfairness, or injustice (more translations and examples here) but I challenge her on that word. Maybe I’m missing a subtlety of translation, or maybe I’ve just been around sports a long time, but I don’t think of sports outcomes as unfair and I don’t want the Small Boy to either. There can be unfair situations – biased referees; missed calls (ahem, why yes, Andreas Ambühl was goal-line offsides); players who cheat, shave points, or take performance-enhancing drugs; spectators who interfere with play in a way that’s irreversible – but I don’t think that the cold hard logic of sports itself, which is that for one team to win another team must lose, is unfair. It’s hard. It can be heartbreaking – have you ever watched a 6 foot 2 inch tall, 218 pound professional hockey player cry? It’s heartbreaking. But it’s not unfair.

I am one of those people who believes, for the most part, that sports is a pretty good metaphor for life. There will always be days when you bring your best self to the game and the game crushes you anyway. At Small Boy’s final tournament of the season, his team was up against mostly more experienced teams. Strictly speaking, it was a tournament for the older half of the Bambinis, but our older boys were already at a different tournament that day so TrainerMan – who can be a bit gung-ho about these things sometimes – decided what the heck, we’ll send a team anyway, it’ll be good for them. Well it was. (He’s TrainerMan for a reason, I guess.) Those boys played their best hockey of the year, every last one of them found their best selves, and they never never never stopped trying. We – the parents – were going crazy in the stands, cheering our heads off, and our boys lost most of those games but they knew – you could tell, they just knew – they had played top drawer hockey and I’ll tell you what, a more glorious seventh place team in a field of eight never did exist. And I refuse to call that outcome unfair, or to let the idea of unfairness sneak into Small Boy’s head, because that would be robbing him of understanding this: you play your heart out. Every time. You play your heart out. Let the chips fall where they may, but you lay it all on the line every time, you risk heartbreak every time. And if you give it your best shot, your honest-to-god best shot, and land in seventh place out of eight anyway – or if you play your heart out only to fall in the last 2.5 seconds of game seven – well you let yourself cry a bit. But then you go give it all again tomorrow.

It’s not unfair. It’s sport, in the best sense of the game. It’s life, in the best sense of the word. I think, slowly, in the inarticulate way of a seven year old boy who plays a whole lot of hockey, Small Boy gets that a bit. He is learning – without, perhaps, realizing it – how to risk breaking his own heart for the thing that he loves. It’s the best outcome I could have hoped for that very first time I ever laced up his skates.

What are you willing to break your own heart for? And for any parents reading, how do you feel about putting your kids, or watching your kids put themselves, in a position to get their hearts broken?