What sports teach us about failure

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Last week I accompanied my 17-year-old son to a baseball camp on Long Island. I’ve watched a lot of baseball over my son’s progress from Little League to high school, but the camp served to underscore what is often said about baseball — it is a game in which failure comes far more often than success. On average, a good hitter fails seven out of every ten times at bat, and a missed ground ball at third base is called an error.

At camps like the one on Long Island, the reality of failure as part of life, as well as of the game, is amplified. Two hundred young men, each hoping their baseball skills will help get them into a good college, perform in front of coaches from 60 colleges. Infielders, like my son, get four or five ground balls and eight swings of the bat in a showcase watched by all the coaches. Then they play in four truncated games, getting a total of maybe eight at bats and a few plays in the field (depending on whether and where the ball is hit). Because four games happen simultaneously, about a quarter of the coaches see the players in any particular game. Failure to get a hit, or a muffed ground ball, may be all it takes to explain why no coaches are in touch after the camp. This is not just baseball — this is where you might have the opportunity to go to college.

Later in the week I watched Morgan Uceny fall in the women’s 1500m race in the Olympics. She was in a position to challenge for a medal. It was a devastating disappointment for the young woman who had trained and sacrificed for years just for the opportunity to be in the race. And the same thing had happened to her a year earlier in the World Championships.

Uceny failed in a particularly dramatic way, but she joined thousands of other Olympic athletes in failure. Of the over 10,000 individuals participating in the games, more than 90% left with no medal and fewer than 300 actually won their competitions and were awarded gold medals. That is a lot of failure and a lot of disappointed people.

But few — not even Uceny, who was tripped by another runner — are complaining. No medals were awarded to those who lost because they had tried hard, or because they were favored to win before the games. Nor was Saudi Sarah Attar, who finished a distant last in her 800m heat, awarded a medal, though she was clearly disadvantaged by her country’s generations-long ban on female participation in sports.

It is often said, usually be self-serving high school and college coaches, that sports are good training for life. My son’s Long Island baseball camp and the Olympics both confirm that they are right, notwithstanding the modern trend in youth sports to emphasize participation and downplay competition. Winning isn’t everything, but there is no way around the fact that there are one winner and lots of losers in every race.

Like most aspects of life, serious participation in sports requires investment and risk taking — investment of time, physical exertion and mental concentration — taking the risk of failure, of coming in second or even last. But I fear that athletic competition is fast becoming the only part of our lives where we continue to recognize and accept these incontrovertible realities. We seem to be in constant search of ways to shift the costs of failed investments and risks gone bad — to assure that everyone is awarded a gold medal.

Both the Olympics and baseball should remind us that failure is part of life. Neither parents nor the government can alter that reality, though both can cushion the fall. In doing so, however, it is important that we not discourage our children or our fellow citizens from getting back on their feet to try again.

I have no idea whether my son will have the opportunity to play college baseball, but I am confident that baseball has taught him that a strikeout means he has to work even harder to figure out how to hit a nasty pitch. Then, like Morgan Uceny, he will be better able to cope with the nasty pitches life will inevitably throw his way.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.

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Jim Huffman