“To everything there is a time.” (Ecclesiastes 3.1)
The coming of March means the coming of Purim and Pesach, but in the basketball world it signals championship tournaments that either produce the jubilation of victory, or the profound disappointment of loss.
Tip-off of the opening round of the 2000 Skyline conference tournament found us in second place, with expectations of advancing to the NCAA Division III tournament. A last-second put back basket ended our dreams. The walk from court to locker room was only a few hundred feet, not leaving much time to find words of comfort for myself or players. I sat down, looked at my dejected team and blurted out the time honored words, “It’s only a game.” Then in an attempt to provide perspective added, “I’m going home tonight to my family and you’re going to your dorm; tomorrow I will go to work and you will go to class. Life will go on, it’s only a game.”
Instilling perspective is consequential, but a losing locker room is not the time to assuage the pain of losing by demeaning the pursuit of victory. “To everything there is a time,” and the appropriate moment for teaching perspective is not after suffering a loss. How we respond when we try our best but still fail is among the most important life lessons that competitive sports teaches. Therefore, what is needed after a loss is reinforcement that it is only the continued pursuit of winning that gives birth to future victories.
Declaring “only a game” is needed after wins when the ego is out of control, but whispering “only” after a defeat provides an excuse to stop trying and is the equivalent of telling a child who is falling off a bike while learning how to ride, “It’s okay, it’s only bike riding.” What is needed at the moment of failing is not perspective but encouragement to keep trying. Encouraging the child to get back on the bike not only enables the child to eventually learn how to ride, but more significantly enables the child to feel a sense of conquest that comes from succeeding after failing.
On February 14, 2010 we lost to St. Joseph College, putting us into a tie with Mount St. Mary for the last spot in the playoffs. Chen Biron, our best shooter, shot one for five ending the game with only six points. The thought of “only a game” was never uttered by Chen or his teammates. Two nights later in the final conference game of the season we defeated Mount St. Mary 81 to 68. Chen was seven for nine from 3-point range and finished with 27 points. The game represented much more than a win because it renewed the belief that although we periodically experience failure, we can control outcomes provided that we are willing to continue the pursuit.
Providing perspective after victories and reinforcing pursuit after losses teaches that whether we are experiencing the disappointment of loss or the jubilation of victory, the lessons learned from playing the game can define us long after the score has faded from memory.
The essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book “So You Want To Be a Coach” coming September 2022 that serves as a resource to help new coaches, proactively addressing the many challenges that they will face.
Jonathan Halpert played college basketball for Yeshiva University’s legendary coach Red Sarachek from 1962 to 1966 and began his college coaching career in 1972. He was winner of the College Basketball Official’s Sportsmanship Award in 1980 and 1997, recipient of the Metropolitan Basketball Writer’s Good Guy Award in 1998, and was Skyline Conference Coach of the Year in 2000 and 2010. Upon his retirement in 2013 he was the longest-tenured college coach in New York City history and fourth among all currently active NCAA coaches. In 2012, he became the seventh coach in New York City history to earn 400 victories.
He is the author of “Are you still coaching” a collection of reminiscences from his 45 year coaching career. He is married to the former Aviva Margolis has five children, twenty grandchildren and three great grandchildren.