Treat Those Two Impostors Just the Same

In passing, I’ve mentioned a non-fiction book project I am working on. It is a biography of a man who served as one of the youngest captains during World War II, won a silver star for combat heroics in the Pacific, later co-founded Sea World with fellow UCLA alumni, and eventually turned to ocean conservation, a fitting end for a lifelong fishermen who took a lot of fish from the sea.

The biography is going to touch on his approach to fatherhood. With uncommon deliberation, he imparted lessons to his three kids that he deemed most critical to worldly success. Often he did so by enrolling his kids in youth sports, attending all their games, and using them as teachable moments.

One key lesson concerned what he called having “good feelings” — that is to say, keeping as close to an even keel as possible when navigating the ups and downs of every important enterprise in life. It is perhaps best expressed in the Rudyard Kipling poem If, one he frequently quoted.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;

In my experience playing tennis, tending goal in soccer, putting to win skins, and shooting youth basketball free throws with games on the line, I’d argue that the most valuable lesson taught by sports is how to control one’s emotions during moments of adversity, appreciate how much that ability impacts outcomes, and react with healthy perspective to whatever happens, getting neither too high after victories nor too low after defeats.

On the field triumph and disaster are impostors indeed — ask any quarterback who is celebrated as a hero when his receiver catches a poorly thrown touchdown pass, and the next week finds himself the goat when everyone drops balls thrown perfectly well. Organized athletics is a process of winning and losing enough times that you understand how to bring victory and deal with defeats. These are lessons that cannot be taught by spectating alone.