In the classic movie A League of their Own, Tom Hanks, playing the role of manager Jimmy Dugan, asks his outfielder, Evelyn Gardner, why she would make a mental mistake that caused their team to give up the lead in the game. Gardner begins to cry, and Dugan says, “Are you crying? Are you crying? ARE YOU CRYING? There’s no crying! THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!"
Despite what Dugan contended, athletics is filled with tears. In fact, there is a lot crying in the Olympic Games.
This week, returning American world champion and Olympic Gold medal favorite Jordyn Wieber finished third on the American team in the individual qualifier, failing to advance to the all-around final. The dream of Olympic Gold slid away in a bobble here and a mini-step there. Wieber couldn't hide her tears; and the whole world felt her pain. There is Olympic-sized heartache and tears at the London Games.
There is a sign in the Athlete’s Center at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs that reads, “The Olympic Games isn’t just every four years, it's every day.”
Yes, to be an elite athlete, to be the best in the world, it is an every-day thing. You can see that clearly at the OTC. There is a call to commitment that drives an athlete to the next level. Two-a-day practice session; strength training; conditioning; circuits; technique; film study; sports psychology; nutrition. All of these elements play an important role in reaching the desired goal.
To be the athlete who gets his or her arm raised in victory takes commitment to excellence. You can’t take time off. You can’t waste an opportunity. You need to push on; longer, harder, farther, stronger, tougher. The personal investment is HUGE. These elite athletes put their lives, families, education and careers on hold while they pursue the Gold.
One of my favorite times to watch the Olympic Games is the medal ceremony. My attention quickly turns to the silver medalist, not the Olympic champion. I search for the disappointment, the pain, the anguish of unfilled dreams. “The agony of defeat” as Jim McKay used to say.
As a coach, if I see a smiling face; the athlete waving and kissing the silver medal, I see an athlete who did not set high enough goals. I see an athlete who is satisfied, who settled for not being the best.
If I see tears, the flushing of the face, and uncontrolled emotion as media from around the world document overwhelming distress, I believe I have found the heart of true competitor. This is the kind of athlete who hates losing more than enjoying winning.
Now, some of you are going to strongly disagree with me. You are going to say athletics is about the competition, about giving your best effort, about sportsmanship, and about representing your country. Yes, athletics is all about that, but the most elite of all athletes compete to “win the prize.”
I grew up in a culture of winning during the late 1960s and ‘70s under coaches Jerry Auchstetter and Charlie Bell as they directed the Viking football program. In my four years, we lost two games. Even though those two losses came 40 years ago, I can tell you everything about them, but almost nothing about the other 30 games in which we dominated. The expectation from every player to every fan in the community was a perfect season. When we did not achieve that perfection we longed for, we fought hard to hide our disappointment, but it leaked out.
When I see an Olympian with a silver medal draped around the neck with a tear sliding down the cheek, what I see is an athlete with a heart of Gold.
About the blogger: Doug Reese is a 1975 graduate of and a member of the Geneva Athletic Hall of Fame. He is the author of the book "Take it to the Next Level, Performance Principles for Life." Reese is a member of the USA Wrestling national coaching staff and has coached elite U.S. teams in five world championships, the Pan American Games and was on staff for the '96 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He has also worked for the International Olympic Committee as a clinician for developing countries under the Olympic Solidarity program.