True champions don’t worry about the score

One of the nation’s most successful coaches, in a winning-obsessed culture, made a conscious choice to throw away the scoreboard.

By Will Baker

A grueling season of competition has come to an end. The final game in the NCAA Basketball Tournament (March Madness) has been played and the champion has been crowned. At least that’s what we are supposed to believe. As Americans we live in a context steeped in competitive zeal.

The words of Gen. George S. Patton to the men of Third Army during World War II exemplify our nation’s attitude toward competition: “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. … The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” This was one of the first quotes I learned as a young boy. I was raised in a context that viewed everything as a competition: grades, sports, love — even cooking couldn’t escape.

And so we compete, yearning to win, to succeed at any cost, not realizing that our desire to beat our competitors blinds us. We become focused on what others are doing, accomplishing, presenting to the world, especially in this modern age of the Internet, Facebook and websites. It’s a world where only specific aspects of identity are presented in a way that puts them in the best, or worst, possible light. We become focused on those we believe we are competing against and fail to focus on ourselves.

Now don’t tell anybody else this, but competition can sometimes find its way into church life. In the seven minutes it takes me to drive home from my office I’ll pass 10 other churches; at least two of them are Baptist. In a world where church membership isn’t a given, there’s a church on every other corner and church plants are in every school gymnasium. It can seem like we are playing in our own championship tournament.

Here’s the thing: we are. The mistake we make is thinking that those other churches are the competition. The real competition is ourselves. As we strive for success in following the will of Christ, no one else can cause us to fail. In fact, focusing on those other churches, what they have and what they’re doing, only prevents us from becoming the best we can be. We become champions for Christ when we focus solely on his will for our lives. This is a difficult thing.

Because of the tournament’s history, the end of March Madness is a great time to think about what it means for the church to strive for success — in particular because of a man named John Wooden. Wooden coached at UCLA from 1948 to 1975, leading the team to 10 NCAA Tournament Championships and four undefeated seasons — feats of success no one else has come close to replicating.

He did this without ever using the word “win” in any of his practices. “My players will tell you they never heard me mention winning. … You can lose when you outscore someone in a game and you can win when you are outscored.”

We all keep score to some degree. What Wooden recognized is that everyone is different. Some people, teams, churches are blessed with abilities and resources that we may or may not have ourselves. “If you prepare properly, you may be outscored but you will never lose. You always win when you make the full effort to do the best of which you’re capable.”

Wooden’s definition of success defied that of our culture. “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” Read that again and take some time to chew on it. The most successful coach, in a winning-obsessed nation, made a conscious choice to throw away the scoreboard, to focus on the effort, not on the end result.

Make no mistake, Wooden wanted to win. He didn’t play the game just to pass the time, but he came to realize that there was very little that was under his control. One of the surprising things about this realization is where it came from: his father, a farmer who lost everything in the depression.

“Father said, never try to be better than someone else but never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s something over which you have some control and you have no control over how good somebody else could be.”

This is just as true for the church as it is for individuals. We compare churches and create unrealistic expectations of everyone. Every church has its own unique heritage, its own traits and characteristics that make it special. When we focus on what other churches are doing we lose sight of those unique qualities and forget what attracted us in the first place.

Wooden recognized that success really happened on the practice courts when no one else was watching. “Big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details.” Rather than focusing on the championship game we need to be focused on doing the hard stuff that no one but God sees or probably even knows about.

The church should not be about competition. But for better or worse, we come from a culture and context that is inherently competitive. The Apostle Paul would have us live as champions: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24.) John Wooden created champions not by focusing on winning but by focusing on being the best possible.

How do you define success for yourself and your church? Let me know, because the only way we’ll be true to Christ’s mission is if we strive to become champions together.

Quotations taken from John Wooden’s 2009 TED Talk and his Coaches Choice talk which can be found here.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.