It was a spring Friday in late April, 2001. It was a day I don’t think I will ever forget! My son Jimmy was a senior and playing his last home game against rival Seton Catholic. They played Seton a few weeks before and Seton got the best of it, winning 3 to 1. Jimmy was the losing pitcher.
I remember telling Jimmy during his last week of practice to take time to take it all in and to appreciate the grind that he had put himself through to get to this point in his high school baseball life. There were a lot of guys who had a lot more talent than he did. He wasn’t the fastest runner, strongest hitter, nor could he throw the ball harder than anyone else.
He was what I call a grinder. A grinder is someone who is not that great in talent but is willing to do the extra work. Jimmy would work relentlessly toward improving his game. He did most of his work on this home field and in the batting cage I had built in our backyard. When he wasn’t pitching, he played first base.
I hit him thousands of grounders at first base. Once we counted after his playing career was over. The count totaled over a quarter of million from age 10 through his senior year. I had bought and accumulated 500 baseballs and we would go out every day in the heat of the summer or the cold of winter and each time I would hit all 500 at him. We did it almost every day. I remember working late—until 8:30pm or 9pm. I would come home, get the baskets of baseballs, head for the field and hit grounders under the lights. There were dings and bruises from balls that took bad hops. Jimmy never backed off and as long as he didn’t, I kept hitting them. Jimmy told me that it was hardest when he would take one off his shins because of a bad hop on a cold day in Arizona when the winter temperature would hover in the high 30’s. There were other times when it was so hot that he nearly would faint under the Arizona sun. We would store the balls in those plastic U.S. Mail contaiNers. Sometimes, I would take a couple of baskets of balls to second base and with a fungo bat would hit the balls on one hop to first. He would practice “picking” one hop balls. He got to be really good at it. He would constantly work on his footwork at first base. I would try to hit fly balls and get them as high as I could hit them with a fungo. Problem was I wasn’t good at it and he would get pissed at me. Somewhere I found this square tennis racquet type mechanism with really strong and tough strings. It was designed to hit fly balls. So I would use it and Jimmy would practice going from first base to running into the outfield foul territory catching the ball with his back to the infield. We did this countless times. He got pretty good.
Today, Jimmy would say that he was over the top in his work ethic about baseball. Between the years of 10 and 21- Jimmy was always on a baseball team and would work between 4 and 7 hours a day on baseball except for 2 weeks around Christmas. He would begin each team as an average middle of the pack player but worked his way to the front of the pack and at times was considered his team’s most valuable player. His work ethic was relentless.
So on this day, I reminisced about all the practice times we had on this field. Just him and me. Though there was a lot of grit and grind, it was a lot of fun.
Since Jim had pitched the game before, he was playing first base. High school games are 7 innings. At top of the 7th, Seton Catholic had the bases loaded with no one out and a 5-3 lead. Jim came into the game as a reliever and struck out the sides. Then at the bottom of the inning, he hit a walk off grand slam home run to win the game and experience a regional championship. I stood back away from all the hoopla. What I will never forget is when he rounded third base, he knew where I was standing and looked for me and made eye contact. That was my special moment with Jim. The rest of the celebration was about him, his team and the feeling of being a champion at last. They went on and won the state championship that year.
Since that experience of being a champion, Jimmy has had many other experiences of being hero and a champion on the field. He also has had more than his share of moments of being the heel. I have been forced to consider the difference between being a scoreboard champion and a champion from the heart.
There seems to be an obsession with being #1 in the endeavor of sports. During college football games, it is common to see cameras pan the crowd and students flash the “we’re #1 sign” even when their team is being annihilated on the field. It becomes so important to identify with the champion on the scoreboard. So much is made up about the heroes on the scoreboard. If he/she is champion there then it is expected that those individuals will be champion elsewhere. But, often the disparity of performance away from the sport is great.
In my work to treat addiction, I find this disparity in performance as well. There are those whose performance is stellar and outstanding on the scoreboard of their professional life. Yet, the disparity of behavior away from their performance at work sabotages their life with out of control addiction.
Scoreboard champions know about winning and losing. There is conditioning and training about performance focus and how to rebound from disappointment and defeat. There is so much preparation that goes into becoming a scoreboard champion.
For many winning and losing becomes a life or death struggle. No matter what it takes it is important to stretch and strive and somehow win. Frequently, athletes adopt a hate mentality toward their opponent, in order to propel them to greater accomplishment on the field of endeavor. Unbelievable stories are told about players who compete with broken bones, damaged bodies and mangled mental conditions. These athletes are lionized with emphasis that to be a real champion you have to compete that way. The inference suggests that real champions ignore human limitations. That’s what makes them champions. Drivenness becomes unparalleled. There is no boundary to what a champion is willing to do to be number one.
I have heard stories about golfers who work on their game as much as 15-20hrs a day! There are stories of runners who run through the pain of a broken bone in their foot. Scott Jurek, in his book Eat and Run, reported during one ultra marathon race through Death Valley at one point after becoming so sick from running that he was uncontrollably throwing up. He had his support team place him inside a coffin of ice prepared for him on the roadside! Then, he revived himself and completed and won the ultra marathon race! These are the examples of extreme lore that defines a scoreboard champion. Corporations across America revel in the legend of leaders who tote the folklore of grit and grind and doing whatever it takes to be a champion in their field of endeavor.
In truth, scoreboard champions learn to depend on this kind of adrenaline to perform. It’s no wonder the line gets blurred around performance enhancement drugs when champions are so monomaniacal about winning and avoiding losing. It becomes their identity. As a result, life becomes imbalanced. Other aspects of life are neglected. Relationship skills, spirituality, community values and sensitivity to anything other than personal ambition often suffer.
Of course, it is not only true of champions of sport. This frenzied feeding of need to be a scoreboard champion is fraught through our society. The stories are replete of personal careers, families, major corporations and entire nations all destroyed by excessive greed driven by obsessed ambition to be number one.
Addiction is positioned as a centerpiece in this dynamic. Addicts become like little kids who cannot get enough sugar. You never get enough of what you really don’t want. Eventually, in a downward death spiral, addiction gets lost in the illusional pursuit of one more hit, one more time that never ends.
In the beginning you just want success, however, it is defined. But in the end, the scoreboard mentality overwhelms and rather than you chasing the brass ring, the tables are turned and it begins to chase you through addiction. Like a pack of wolves chasing someone through the woods and keeps nipping at the heels, the addict keeps trying to reach for that hit one more time, while trying to keep the pack of wolves at bay. The focus becomes “I’m so close—yet so far away”. “I want to climb the hill just one more time”. It’s never sustainable. Even for those who become scoreboard champions. It only lasts but for a brief fleeting moment. As a therapist, many who come to see me are left with the wreck and ruin of addictive devastation.
Recovery weaves a different fabric that looks beyond winning and losing. Recovery focuses on the cultivation of becoming a heart champion. Heart champions are a different breed! They are spawned from a different ilk. There is so much more than the score at the end of the game. Self definition comes from a deeper source. It’s about the preparation, the sacrifice, the sweat and engagement of uncertainty. Whether you win or lose on the scoreboard, a champion’s life is determined within before the game is ever played and independent of the score on the board at the end of the game. It has to do with connecting in congruency with values of the heart that supersede wins and losses on the scoreboard. A heart champion is more concerned about being true to one’s heart and not just winning or losing in life.
It’s not like heart champions condition themselves to lose. Rather, it’s like they are carved from a deeper place down deep inside. A heart champion knows that losing is a part of the ebb and flow of life. She determines to never let an outcome define who she is. Instead, definition is determined by the vision of destiny from within which supersedes any result. What is a priority is knowing that she is connected to herself, embracing all of herself-the good, bad and the ugly. She understands that life is a tapestry weaving together the bitter and the sweet, success and failure, triumph and tragedy. Positive results are fine and desired, but foundationally, a heart champion already has determined that they are “an unrepeatable miracle of the universe” and that no victory will add to it and no defeat will take away from it. it is already etched in the stone of destiny.
Cultivating this concept in recovery demands that we face our addictive failures and our mistakes. It demands that we go into training that teaches us how to manage our shame around our losses and mistaken destructive behaviors.
Heart champions live to connect to the present moment of struggle that comes with a commitment to improve and excel. They learn to cooperate rather than remain focused on competing with their teammates. For them competition is only a training ground for the greater cooperative effort to create a better community, whether that community be a team, a family, a neighborhood or a nation. Heart champions are required for all those who seek healing from an addiction. Addiction breaks the heart and the will of those who suffer. The only path for those who heal is one that requires cooperation within a community who shares equal brokenness and who demand accountability toward change in behavior. This dynamic always creates a heart champion.
Heart champions are able to appreciate all aspects and those who are related to the game. They develop a great appreciation for all team members, not just the star performers. While it is true that you don’t win on the scoreboard without basically talented players, it is also true that you will never be a heart champion without recognizing the value of a bench player mentality.
A bench player mentality is developed when you recognize that those who sit on the bench and do not play carry a very important energy to the enlargement of community. I like to refer to the aggregate collection of people as a community. So, for me, a baseball team is a baseball community.
Kids on the bench make an important addition or subtraction to a baseball community. If a player sulks or allows himself to get distracted from the game, which is easy to do, when you know you’re not going to play, he will drain energy from the focus needed for those who are trying to excel on the field.
But, it goes the other way, too. If guys who are on the field are dismissive of those who don’t play and cop a condescending attitude toward bench players that too will severely damage the results on the field. I have seen this happen many times.
Heart champions embrace the value of all the roles in a baseball community and learn to participate in all the roles. When they are benched, they become cheerleaders for those who play. Whether playing or not, they help gather the equipment before and after the game. They join in preparing the field and picking up the trash. For heart champions, these tasks are as important as playing the game itself.
It’s been my observation, that a “bench player mentality” is necessary for addiction recovery. To translate from what has been described about baseball, recovery requires an addict to do what is needed when others are not looking or even aware. Its one thing to show up at a meeting and engage and say what is expected. Yet, another to follow through in private moments of mundane living, doing what needs to be done to remain sober. Working the 12 steps, calling community members for support and shifting from an attitude of entitlement to one of humility are the common stuff of long term sobriety. These ordinary, every day steps will only occur when an addict shifts from the limelight of wanting to be center stage to the “bench player mentality” of taking up less space so that others in relationship can take up more. Addicts who learn the principles of this life style change are more likely to establish long term sobriety.
Recovery demands heart champions. For the most part, scoreboard champions flame out and addicts relapse into their addiction. In recovery from addiction, one with a scoreboard mentality become more concerned with the number of days of sobriety versus the depth of honesty and integrity going on presently in their life. An addict in recovery with a heart champion mentality is more concerned with being the best client for recovery versus egotistically wanting the touted best therapist. They are more concerned with learning how to be their own guru rather than finding a sponsor who will be their ultimate master guide.
There is nothing wrong with being a scoreboard champion in any sport. But, if one strives and achieves becoming a champion on the scoreboard but fails to incorporate the components of being a heart champion, the game of achievement and endeavor has misled the player and the community at large becomes shortchanged. Phony gets accelerated and genuine is minimized in deference to being #1 no matter what.
Article by Ken Wells, LPC
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