Is winning actually fun? (Part 2)

12. Is winning actually fun_ (770x409p)

Key Points:

  1. Winning is not inherently joyful, and wins often bring a sense of relief rather than excitement.
  2. The time my college soccer team won our conference regular season championship perfectly highlights this concept.
  3. When wins bring relief rather than joy, an identity or deeply-held belief was probably under threat. Being unaware of this leads to fear and defensiveness that rob us of joy.

Estimated reading time: 7-15 minutes

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Last week, we examined why we play sports (and games in general), and the reasons some people equate a team or individual’s playing style with their moral character. We concluded that certain approaches and strategies can be perceived to violate the social contract inherent to games, namely that they should be fun to participate in and enjoyable to watch. Further, I talked about how the purest joy in games or sports tends to come from moments of excellent execution or of spontaneity and unpredictability.  

Perhaps while reading all of this, you thought something like, “Okay, but nothing is more fun than winning. Obviously!”

Well, I’d like to challenge you on this.

Winning isn’t always fun.

Have you ever won a game and the overriding emotion was relief rather than joy? If you’ve played competitive sports for long enough, I can almost guarantee this is something you’ve experienced. That doesn’t really track with the notion that, “Of course winning is fun.” But, why does this happen? Well, it stems from wanting to win so badly that you fear it won’t happen. The stress and anxiety over a potential loss become so painful that you suffer before the defeat even occurs.

Then, once the game is won, the prospect of losing instantly vanishes, and relief ensues. Now, as anyone who’s had a splitting migraine will tell you, relief can feel incredible, but few would describe it as “fun.” Certainly not “joyful.” Now, this isn’t at all to say that winning isn’t fun. Of course it can be, and often is. I simply wish to make the point that it’s not automatically and always fun. And, in cases when winning brings more relief than joy, a potential loss was probably more threatening to a deeply-held identity or belief than we might have realized at the time. It’s beneficial to be aware of this, because not knowing about it can rob us of joy.

Let me tell you about a time this happened to me.

For most of my childhood, teen years, and early 20’s, “good soccer player” was my primary identity. You can read more about that right here, if you’re interested. That identity faced its steepest challenge by failing to make the grade at the Division-I college level, when a series of injuries and not being quite good enough led me to transfer to a different school.

After two unsuccessful years at Marquette, I landed at Carthage College, a top-25 Division-III institution, excited to use my redshirt-enabled three remaining seasons of eligibility. And my second year, we had a very good team. Expectations were high. Despite a rough start to the season, losing four of our first five games thanks to some tough away trips and an ill-timed red card from yours truly, by game six, things finally clicked. We went on a tear, winning ten, drawing two, and losing only one of our remaining matches as we headed into our final regular season contest.

A quirk of the conference schedule and a highly competitive league meant the following:

  • Win, and we’d be guaranteed to finish as conference champions with the 1-seed for the playoffs
  • Draw, and we’d be in the playoffs, either as the 2-seed or 3-seed
  • Lose, and we’d likely drop all the way to 5th place, missing the playoffs, and certainly not qualifying for the national tournament

On top of the stress of knowing our incredible season could potentially be ruined by only a second loss in fourteen matches, the game was set to be played in pretty unfavorable circumstances. It was a daytime kickoff after a four-hour bus ride on a crummy, bumpy grass field against a highly physical opponent with whom the team (and me) had a bit of an unsavory history. And I know, a flashback within a flashback is “bad writing,” but bear with me here.

Winning on a technicality

The previous year, we had faced a similar scenario. In a home match against this exact same school, both teams needed a win in the final conference match of the season to guarantee a playoff spot, while a defeat would see the losing side eliminated from postseason contention.

During a scrappy, hard-fought encounter where one of our best players missed a penalty kick and one of theirs somehow contrived to hit both the post and crossbar on the same shot, we finally broke the deadlock with a goal in the 70th minute. There was just one problem.

The guy who scored had somehow forgotten his jersey for the match, so he borrowed one from a reserve player. This meant the number on his shirt didn’t match roster submitted to the referee at the start of the match, a fact the opposition’s head coach immediately noticed. He started shouting at the referee, saying that the goal shouldn’t stand because it was scored by an “illegal player.” I think he may also have asked that the player in question be yellow-carded for an “equipment violation.”

As the referee jogged over to speak with both coaches, a chilling scenario started to unfold in my head. The official takes the opposition coach’s side, the goal gets chalked off, and we concede a late heartbreaker to lose 1-0. Season over.

As I waited to see if this would come to fruition, a commotion grew in the stands as opposing sets of parents started to wonder what was happening. And, to put it mildly, I was irate. I despised the notion of trying to win on a technicality, and I’d seen so much bull**** from referees over the years that I strongly suspected the way this would turn out.

When someone asked me what happened, I responded, “This asshole is trying to say Rafa’s goal didn’t count because he was wearing the wrong jersey!” I was well within earshot of the opposing coach and made no attempt to hide who I was talking about. He responded angrily as someone from our coaching staff pulled me away before the situation could escalate.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed, and the referee decided that a perfectly legitimately member of the team in the incorrect jersey number didn’t constitute an “illegal player.” The goal stood, and we went on to win 1-0. Needless to say, I didn’t make any friends on the other team. Nor did I think very highly of them, to be fair. In my mind, they were all dishonorable cheaters by association. Though it would be years before I learned of the example that I wrote about last week, their coach’s actions led my 20-year-old, hotheaded self to view their entire team as no better than a middle-aged chess player hoping his five-year-old opponent falls asleep before beating him. Obviously, I know better now, but it felt true at the time.

Fast forward one year…

With this backstory adding to the already simmering tension, our schools again met on the final day of the regular season, with both teams’ seasons at stake. And at first, things really didn’t go well for us Carthage boys. We were not playing well, and found ourselves 2-0 down with 15 minutes left to play. But, facing the prospect of an incredibly promising season going completely down the drain, we suddenly kicked our play into high gear. We sent attack after attack their way, and two different freshmen scored to send the game into overtime. Near the end of the first golden goal period, a handball in the box led to a penalty kick for us.

As our designated taker, I was given an opportunity athletic dreams are made of. In hindsight, the stakes were very low in the grand scheme of things, but come on. The chance to score a sudden death goal to win the championship? Moments like that are why we play sports!

As I stepped up to take the shot, a curious sense of euphoria washed over me. I knew I was going to score.

And I did.

The goalkeeper dove the wrong way, my shot hit the back of the net, and we were conference champions for only the 2nd time in school history. Overcome with the joy of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and taking the decisive shot to seal the win, I wheeled away in celebration as my gleeful teammates chased after me.

Or at least, that’s what I should have done.

Instead, I felt only exhaustion and relief.

I deeply, strongly believed that we were a “good” team, one that deserved a spot in the national tournament, and one that had the capability to go on a deep run once we got there. These “undeserving pricks” on the opposition team who “weren’t as good as us” tried to take what was rightfully ours, and they almost did.

So instead of sprinting away after scoring, I just stopped. I had no energy left from fretting about the loss and fighting so hard to avoid it. Unfortunately, the first face I saw in this state was that of the opposing team’s captain, who had sprinted into the box as I took the shot in the hopes to clear the rebound if I’d missed. He and I had “enjoyed” a ****-talking, physical battle for the entire match, and I’ll confess something. I was jealous of his aerial abilities and the fact that he’d received 1st-Team all conference honors the prior season when I’d only gotten 2nd-Team, despite my view that I was a more skillful player.

So, controlled by an egoic desire to lash out at a threat to my identity, I taunted him. “Go home!” I yelled twice, while pointing aggressively in his direction. Not particularly clever, or accurate, since my team was the away side that day. But, the intent behind the message did the trick, and this sparked an immediate confrontation between the two teams that somewhat spoiled the victory.

Instead of soaking up the joy that could have come from being the guy who scored the goal that sealed the league title, I allowed my beliefs about what my team “deserved” and which players I was “better than” to taint a once-in-a-career moment.

After this happened, our coach handled the situation perfectly.

When the two teams’ testosterone-fueled shoving match had calmed down, he quickly brought our squad over to a grove of trees near the field so he could yell at us (me) in semi-private. And yell he did. Highlighting our lack of class, sportsmanship, and how poorly this reflected on everyone involved, I felt pretty low, and I imagine most of my teammates did, as well.

But in the midst of angrily letting us know how badly we’d (I’d) screwed up, he didn’t miss a beat and suddenly shouted, “We’re ****ing conference champions everyone on Rafa let’s go!!!” We immediately cheered and started jumping up and down in joyous celebration together.

Whether this was his ultimate intention or it just happened in the moment, approaching the situation in this way served to highlight the inappropriate behavior while spontaneously igniting the celebration that should have ensued after the sudden-death goal.

And as I wrote last week, joy comes from moments, not winning.

Those moments are enhanced when the outcome is uncertain, when something suddenly goes your way when it looks like it might not. So, by initiating a celebration in the midst of angrily lecturing us for a lack of sportsmanship, our coach managed to bring back what had been lost.

The end of this story shows us perfectly that the unexpected victories are the sweetest.

If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch the celebrations from the final goal of Arsenal’s recent 3-2 victory over Bournemouth. Seen out of context, you’d think Arsenal had just won the Champions’ League final, not a home game against one of the lowest-ranked teams in the league. But because of the way the game unfolded, with Arsenal going behind after just 10 seconds, finding themselves tied deep into stoppage time, and scoring with their literal last chance of the match was so unexpected, so exciting, that it led to an incredible release of joy.

If that game had been a routine 3-0 win for Arsenal, as many predicted pre-match, the emotions would have been totally different, despite the outcome, the win, being the same. Similarly, this is why shootouts in soccer will continue to captivate audiences. The ending is essentially guaranteed to be exciting, because it always comes down to a single shot. Because we don’t know whether the shooter will score or miss, the uncertainty makes the final result more impactful.

So yes, winning IS often fun but…

Not inherently. Instead, what’s inherent to fun and joy are moments of spontaneity, particularly when the outcome is in doubt. When a moment leads to a win, especially an unexpected one, the fun we experience is nearly unmatched. But simply winning, on its own, isn’t enough. You know this if my story resonated with you because you’ve experienced relief rather than excitement after a victory or if a coach ripped your team a new one for playing poorly and barely beating an inferior team.

Either way, it’s not hard to see that sometimes winning can be more egoically reinforcing than joyful, and that’s a shame. When what we subconsciously desire during a game is the relief of avoiding a loss, we play from a place of fear and defensiveness, which stifles our creativity and ability to execute. This forces us into playing to protect a subjective view of ourselves or our team, rather than using the game as a canvas to express the skills we’ve worked so hard to develop. While this egoic defensiveness can be somewhat inevitable, it’s certainly not what initially drew us to games, and hopefully isn’t what keeps us coming back.

To wrap up, I’m somewhat light on concrete advice, but I’ll simply suggest this. Start looking for areas in which competition triggers defensiveness in you. Then, see if you can figure out why. What are you protecting? Do you need to protect it? Once you understand this about yourself, you can start to catch reactions you may regret before they happen. In the end, this can lead to more joy and less conflict in the activities you love. And who doesn’t want that?

Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Did my story resonate with you? Have you experienced a win that led to palpable relief rather than joy? Which activity-related identities have you found yourself protecting in the past? Reply to this email and let me know!


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Every Tuesday, learn about topics you might expect to see on a strength coach’s blog, like how to overcome injuries, train smarter, and become more athletic…and about topics you might be surprised to find, like mindfulness, philosophy, and leaving your ego behind.