Medals vs Memories: what’s more important, winning or having fun?

Winning AND having fun

Firstly, an apology to the people who have been asking when my next blog entry will be out. Despite saying back in January that I was going to blog more, I have clearly failed miserably in that area of the New Year’s Aspirations list so far this year. Hopefully this signifies a recommitment to that aspiration. Feel free to give me (friendly) abuse if I fall off the wagon again.

Thankfully, I have managed to hit one of the other targets on my list. I’m writing this on the back of sharing a hugely enjoyable and successful hockey season with my Surbiton team. Perhaps ‘winning vs having fun’ seems like a facetious issue to be addressing when I have been in the generally enjoyable position of winning most of the time this season. Perhaps these two things are inextricably linked. Then again, things aren’t always as obvious as they seem.

The first important question to consider is what winning actually means. In most sporting contexts, winning does of course literally translate to being victorious in a given contest, match, race or tournament. You know the drill…
“There can only be one winner”
“If you’re not first you’re last”
“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”
Literally and semantically, the runner-up in a final is not the winner. Having said that, we still say you ‘win’ silver and bronze medals, so maybe it’s not quite as simple as emerging as the overall victor. In most matches, it’s pretty obvious – you win, you draw, or you lose. American sport doesn’t like draws: there has to be a winner and a loser when the final whistle is blown. The point is, winning means you have – however it is measured – beaten your opponent.

…Or does it?

There are lots of examples in sport where winning doesn’t have to mean actually winning. Just consider the London Marathon last weekend. I see every one of the 38,000 runners who took to the streets (including some in outrageous fancy dress) as a winner. Some run for charity, some run for the personal challenge, some run just to soak up the special atmosphere of marathon day. The vast majority may never stand atop a podium or go down in the athletics record books, but to me they’re all champions in their own way. This weekend, I’m taking part in my second Tough Mudder. I say ‘taking part’ rather than ‘competing’ because this event is not a race, but a challenging (and very messy) obstacle course based on teamwork and pushing your own limits. There are a growing number of campaigns encouraging people to understand that competition isn’t the be all and end all in sport… think ‘This Girl Can’, Park Run and ‘Back To Hockey’. Is winning an important part of campaigns like these? Not really. Are these campaigns still extremely important in the bigger picture of sport? I believe so.

Let’s move back to the question itself. Would you rather win, or have fun? Can you have fun even if you lose? Can you not enjoy it even if you win? Having thought about this quite a bit, I believe this is probably down to the individual. For some people, winning is a fundamental criterion for the amount they enjoy a sporting event. On the back of a defeat, feelings of disappointment, failure or regret easily overshadow the fun they may have had when competing. Although other factors are involved, I’m sure this is the case for a lot of top sportspeople. When I was a bit younger, I definitely fell into this category. Three points, a trophy, glory, pride – all were intrinsically tied to my perceptions about the experience.

These days, my perspective has changed a bit. This next admission comes with a caveat and isn’t meant to be uninspiring. I’ve realised in the last couple of years that dedication, hard work and self-belief don’t always get you what you want: You might deserve to win, but that doesn’t mean you always do. The caveat is that this would never stop me from trying my hardest to achieve something… It’s just that I’ve started to try to separate the eventual outcome from whether I’ve enjoyed the journey. This is not an easy thing to do and I don’t always manage it. However, I know now that losing doesn’t have to mean I don’t get something positive out of a game. Equally sometimes, despite winning, I don’t enjoy a match as much as I’d like to. It’s a complicated business, this whole ‘being a sportsperson’ thing.

There’s also much more to this debate in terms of things like kids’ sport (is taking part more important than winning?) and how to create a winning habit or environment in training. The concept of winning at all costs in elite sport creates interesting debates for us as sports fans on issues such as performance-enhancing drugs, gamesmanship and the use of technology in officiating. (Excellent – there’s a list of future blog topics to keep me on that wagon.)

Don’t misunderstand me: I love to win. This hockey season, and the last month in particular, have been so much fun and there’s no doubt that winning has played a big part in this. But I honestly believe that sharing these experiences with a bunch of brilliant people, having the chance to play in big games and the fact I’ve (mostly) done it with a smile wouldn’t have resulted in me wanting to erase April 2015 from my memory even if we had lost.

I remember hearing the phrase, “It’s not about the medals, it’s about the memories,” when I was a youngster. I think I’ve only just started to understand it. I’d be lying if I said that for me it isn’t about the medals… It’s just that the medals don’t have to be the determining factor in the memories.