Why the power forward’s humility and perspective matter more than ever — in youth sports
Ben Sherwood & Laura Lambert
| 5 min read
Giannis Antetokounmpo (24845003687).jpg by Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
When the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks lost in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs — despite being the Vegas favorite to win it all — Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked if the season was a failure.
Mind you this is right after the game. Right after losing a heartbreak series.
“It’s not a failure, it’s steps to success,” the 28-year-old responded. “Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships. The other nine years was a failure? That’s what you’re telling me?”
And the internet went crazy.
Because you so rarely hear someone speak that kind of truth about sport.
“There’s no failure in sports,” Antetokounmpo went on to say. “There’s good days, bad days; some days you are able to be successful, some days you are not. Some days it is your turn, some days it’s not. That’s what sports is about. You don’t always win.”
This is a far cry from football legend Vince Lombardi’s famous quote: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
It’s far from the win-at-all-costs mentality that is rampant across all levels of sport, even when the stakes could not be any lower — recreational youth sports.
This kind of thinking has led to the idea that if you don’t win your season, you’ve lost. You’re a failure. Even if you’re in third grade. You can thank the trickle-down professionalization of youth sports for that.
Antetokounmpo faces certain risks when he loses, as someone who gets paid, mightily, to play professional basketball. It matters if he, and by extension the Bucks, win.
Your 9-year-old? Not so much.
So let’s listen to the Greek Freak, and put some things about youth sports in perspective.
Winning isn’t everything.
Lest anyone believe Antetokounmpo is some outlier, think about the the voices who have joined him. Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors: “He’s so right. Are there really 29 failures every year in the league? It just can’t be a zero-sum game.” Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti: “When you try to do your best, you have a clear conscience, and that’s never a failure, not just in sport but in life.”
Antetokounmpo’s words weren’t a cop-out. He remains a fierce competitor, a force to be reckoned with next season. He, too, wants to win. His story, and the story of the Milwaukee Bucks, is still being told. It’s a story about growth. About resilience. About downs and ups. Perhaps a comeback.
The story for us non-professionals and our children playing rec ball also includes friendships, lasting memories, life-long healthy habits.
That priceless stuff parents go nuts for.
So is a season a failure if they didn’t win? No.
Is it more fun to win? Of course.
Both things can be true.
This gets to the very core of the MOJO mentality.
Here are three things I’ve learned in 14+ years in youth sports — as a father, a coach and a referee.
Your team of misfits and superstars will quickly learn that they cannot always control whether they win. They can control how hard they try, how hard they work and how consistently they show up for games and practice. That’s the stuff that counts — in sport and in life.
I’m paraphrasing Nelson Mandela here. Put in the right context, every loss is an opportunity for development. And in youth sports, development is its own reward.
In fact, in youth sports, failure is the norm. Failure is how kids learn. Failure is what can motivate them to try harder, do something different. If you don’t believe me, believe NBA legend Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Not all that long ago, Antetokounmpo was a scrawny 13-year-old on a free basketball court outside of Athens, and he didn’t really know how to dribble. If the point of sport is solely about winning — not development — would he have made it this far? The point is not to suggest that any kid can become one of the greats. That’s far from the truth (and in fact, is one of the delusions that ruins the game for kids). The point is that caring so much about winning, and winning alone, pushes aside all of the richness and growth and joy and fun, there for the taking.
Here’s to more Giannis, more humility and more perspective in sport — including youth sports. We are here to play. Let’s go.