This week I want to talk about success and failure in sport. Two recent examples, in the sports of soccer and basketball, have given me the opportunity to do so.
Just last month the world of college basketball lost, in my opinion, the greatest coach ever to pick up a whistle to teach young men the game of basketball. John Wooden, who coined the phrase, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” was known for his grinding practice sessions. He died at the ripe age of 99 years, and during his career earned the respect and admiration of the entire sporting fraternity.
These intense practices were to condition players for rugged game situations and were built around his ‘four laws of learning’ — explanation, demonstration, repetition, and correction. He was a coach who desperately wanted to win, but he wanted to deserve each win by outplaying the worthiest of opponents.
During a time when coaches appeared to develop the persona of madmen stalking the sidelines, much like many coaches of today, coach Wooden was self-possessed. While his peers screamed loud profanities and threw chairs unto gymnasium floors, he kept his cool. While they bumped chests with officials and berated their players after bad plays, Wooden kept his jacket on and spoke to players in measured tones. They listened, and the UCLA Bruins racked up four perfect-win seasons and won a record 88 consecutive games from 1971 to 1974.
One of Wooden’s best players, Bill Walton, who went on to star in the NBA with the L.A. Lakers, was fully caught up in the spirit of his time. A time when the idea was abroad that nobody had the right to interfere with personal freedom — whether parents, professors or police. He came to practice after a semester break with a bushy red beard. Walton knew his coach’s rule was “no facial hair” on players. “It’s my right,” he told his coach. “That’s good Bill,” Coach Wooden responded. “I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them. We’re going to miss you.”
The beard went, and Walton stayed. The team won, and Walton’s friendship with his coach was strong and abiding over the years, as evidenced by his comments following Wooden’s death. Following his retirement, coach Wooden became critical over the lack of teamwork invading the game. He didn’t enjoy watching the game. There was too much showmanship, too much individual play. While the players were better individually, the teamwork was not near as good. During all his winning years, success came because his teams knew teamwork. This was, and still is, fundamental to success. “The main ingredient of stardom,” said coach Wooden, “is the rest of the team.”
We have 2.5 million individuals who play soccer in this country. We have close to one million who are registered to play the game in organized leagues. Why then do we not have a team in World Cup competition when a country like Slovenia, with a total population of just 2 million, makes the round of 32? It doesn’t say much for Canada, sitting on the sidelines.
The last, first, and only time we competed in the World Cup was in 1986. We lost three straight games, having five goals scored against and zero, nil, zilch, goals for. Shut out, sent packing in the first round, with our tails between our legs. Over the years, soccer fans, myself included, have tried to make sense of this dismal showing, and at the same time opinions have been expressed as to why we have not made another appearance. The most obvious reason, of course, is that we are a hockey crazed, fanatical group of individuals. But then, consider the fact that we are a melting pot of people from all 32 countries in this year’s World Cup, but failed to qualify. Go figure.
Hey, we have all the natural requirements — population, money, and players (albeit, scattered around the world). What is missing? Could it be that Canadians are so hyped up with hockey, basketball, and NFL/CFL football that the fluid, beautiful moves of soccer, while adored throughout the world, comes across as boring, especially for the hockey fan? Probably, the only common denominator between the two sports would be the inconsistency of the officiating, both the referees and the linesmen.
While we are known as hockey country, our neighbours to the south are known as baseball and basketball crazies, in lieu of soccer. Yet, they have competed in several World Cups and even hosted the event in 1994. We can’t blame it on the weather, especially since Russia, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden have much the same, yet they boast good teams and have competed often in the past.
There you have it, success and failure, as seen from behind this bench. Might it be possible that if Soccer Canada took some lessons from coach Wooden, it would enhance our chances of making the round of 32 four years from now? It’s sure worth putting a team together as soon as possible and giving it a go.
That’s 30 for this week. Remember, “It’s easier to build a child than mend an adult and an ounce of pluck is worth a ton of luck!” Until next week.
Don Winsor is a former recreation administrator now living in Happy Adventure. He can be reached at (709) 677-2422 (voice/fax), by mail at Box 26, Site 6, Happy Adventure, NL, A0G-1Z0, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org