Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 24 Apr 2014 07:04:38 -0400

Winning Ways

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from September 1990.)

I stumbled onto a new and true way of winning at my first race. This after I had planned to outrun as many of the milers as possible, started too fast, then dropped out, exhausted and disheartened, in the second lap.

My coach Dean Roe told me that day, in so many words: you don’t have to beat everyone, or anyone, to win. You win by finishing what you start, then by trying to improve yourself next time.

Learning that I could win just by trying and by improving came easily. The hard part has been to pass on that lesson.

How hard it is to show people how they can win. It’s hardest when you’re a parent trying to teach this to your own child.

I faced this problem with my then-12-year-old son Eric when he was playing team sports for the first time. His was an enlightened program called Kidsports, which emphasizes learning over winning. Every kid plays in every game, and no one is cut from any team for lack of skill.

But scores are kept, and 12-year-olds think they know that winners are those who score the most. Eric’s soccer team went the whole season without winning a game and scoring but one goal.

“That doesn’t matter,” I told him. “What matters is that you tried and improved.”

He didn’t understand. Maybe he never would, so heavy is the opposing propaganda that only the highest-scoring team or highest-finishing athlete gets to feel like a winner.

Young Americans aren’t in abysmal shape just because they’re lazy, overfed or too wedded to electronic entertainment and parents’ taxi service. They’re also turned off by games that adult coaches, sports reporters and fans have made too hard to win.

My then-16-year-old daughter Sarah quit playing organized games after her first try in middle school. Before writing this page, I asked her why she’d never gone out for high school teams.

“They’re too competitive,” she said. “They cater only to the stars.”

If you aren’t good enough to win, don’t bother trying. That’s the message kids hear.

What they don’t hear is that everyone is good enough to win. And winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing – but not in the way that football coach Vince Lombardi meant.

Winning on your own terms – doing the best you can with the tools you have – is the only thing that keeps you going. It got me going again after my first false start.

Winners never quit, and quitters never win. That’s another statement containing more truth than the anonymous author of an inspirational locker-room sign knew.

Winning is easier if you take it personally. But that doesn’t mean it’s without effort or risk-free. No one demands more of you than you do from yourself, but at least in this contest no one can beat you but you.

Dr. Thomas Tutko, a pioneering sports psychologist and author of Beyond Winning, calls for redefining the word “winner.” It has to be more, he says, than, “Did you finish first or didn’t you?”

In Dr. Tutko’s view the first lesson for runners to learn is that it’s less important to finish first than to race the best you can wherever you finish.

“Life is continually competition,” says Tutko, “whether you’re competing for a job, in school or in the wilderness trying to survive. There’s no way you’re going to avoid competition, because it is part of life itself.

“If we emphasize that it is not competition alone but beating everyone else that is most important, we’ve made the burden which is already painful now intolerable. If we say that losing is like death, then no sane person is going to want to compete.”

Tutko thinks that “maybe the best thing athletics can teach us is not to run away from competition, but to get in there and compete well. This can be a model for not quitting in other areas of life.”

UPDATE FROM 2014

In a later column I added the observation that the highest form of winning is continuing to run after the time-improvement has ended, which it inevitably does. My last PR of any note came in 1978, meaning that more than three-fifths of my running life has gone on nicely since then without another best-ever time – and with many “PWs.”

Looking up from the keyboard now and to my right, I see a saying from Dr. George Sheehan, preserved in calligraphy. It reads:

“Did I win? Is this enough? Each of us has everything we need to be a winner. Do your best with what you’re given.”


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Latest released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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