Winning that Defines Long-Term Sobriety

By Ken Wells - 07/26/2021


Series Two; Blog Forty-Eight

There’s always the motivation of wanting to win. Everybody has that. But a champion needs, in his attitude, a motivation above and beyond winning.” Pat Riley

Winning and losing is not everything. The journey is more important than the outcome. It’s the journey that creates the heart of a champion.” Anonymous

This week the NBA completed its second COVID-shortened season with the Milwaukee Bucks sweeping my beloved Phoenix Suns after the Suns won the first 2 games of a best of 7 series. The Bucks celebrated their first championship since 1971. Meanwhile, the Suns went home second fiddle for the third time in their history. They have never won a championship.

Winning is such a big deal in life. No one wants to lose. Yet, in order for a champion to be crowned, one team wins while the other loses. The Bucks were led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, a heralded MVP and defensive specialist. He dominated every phase of the game. He had 5 blocked shots, 2 steals, 14 rebounds and 50 points! He was the hero, the MVP of the finals, and clearly the winner. Tears flowed down his cheeks during celebration of his first championship trophy of his career.

In the other locker room was Monte Williams, head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Williams led the Suns to an incredible season and playoff run that brought the Suns to the pinnacle of a championship, only to fall short. Before the champagne began to flow in the Bucks’ locker room, Williams entered and briefly congratulated the Bucks on their deserving win and thanked them for teaching the Suns how to be a better team. It was an unprecedented display of sportsmanship that is seldom seen in any level of competition.

Giannis carries a storied background. From Nigeria, he grew up in Athens, Greece. His mother sold goods on the street to make ends meet.  When Giannis was drafted at the age of 18, he said he did not know where his next meal would come from. He worked hard on behalf of caring for his family.  Honesty with self, love and loyalty to his family, courage to do the next right thing and creating meaningfulness in the presence of suffering and sacrifice were all important components in the development of becoming a champion in heart before Giannis ever became a champion on the scoreboard. These personal essentials developed early in his journey are fundamentals that maintain being a champion in heart long after the scoreboard has been erased. Championship trophies will come and go. Yet, the tangible traits that constructed a foundation of being a champion in heart can last a lifetime.  Self-sacrifice, teamwork, personal poise, motivation, and compassion for others are developed character traits that solidify being champion at heart.

Giannis was not the only heart champion on the floor that night. Coach Monte Williams had preached selfless teamwork, team loyalty, compassion, and care for teammates long before the championship series ever began. In 2016, Coach Williams suffered the tragic loss of his beloved wife in a horrific automobile accident. He championed his family in the midst of unbelievable pain, leading them through unimaginable sorrow and hurt.  He served as a healing catalyst behind the scenes in personal intimate ways that are private to all but those who are closest to the family. However, what seems overwhelmingly clear is that Williams had become a heart champion way before the sixth game of the NBA Finals.

I bet that Antetokounmpo and Williams were not the only heart champions on the floor that night. We likely will never know the stories of others affiliated with the final game who were heart champions. While winning the championship is what these men are paid to do, it is the components that make up a heart champion that stands the test of time. Heart champions are never determined by the scoreboard.

When a champion is crowned on the scoreboard, the highlights often suggest that those who won simply wanted the championship more than those who lost the game. That may be true in some cases. Yet, I do not believe this is consistent truth. To those who have been an NBA fan as long as I have, tell me that Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics wanted to win an NBA championship more than Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers!  I have learned that scoreboard champions do not represent heart champions.

Why would I spend such time in analysis of a basketball game or any other sport in a blog like this? It is because the world of sport represents an ideal that is often falsely applied to the average experience of everyday people, particularly those struggling with addiction and sobriety.  The ideal is that in order to celebrate value you must win on the scoreboard. Also, when you don’t win, the false conclusion is it’s because you didn’t try hard enough and didn’t want to win badly enough. So, in recovery, you have those with sobriety and those without. This type of dualistic thinking fosters judgment toward others. It eliminates the nature of being a heart champion. Trying hard is not the only ingredient in experiencing sobriety. It is important but without self-compassion, self-care and healthy boundaries, trying hard will become futile.

The essence of a scoreboard champion is being superior to others. Our society places scoreboard champions on a pedestal. The outward results define who you are by whether or not you win on the scoreboard. Winning is the pinnacle of meaning in life. Winning is everything. Anything short of winning is disdained and to be forgotten. Anything less than being a champion is considered being a failure. However, scoreboard champions are often not conditioned or taught what it means to be a champion in everyday life. They don’t know how to embrace the regular, ordinary experiences of daily living which connect us all. Yet, as life unfolds, it is common to learn more from our mistakes, failures, and losses than our successes and achievements. We overlook the human brilliance that can be uncovered in the moment of failure. These are life experiences and necessary lessons that are common to recovery from addictive behaviors.

Heart champions view life radically different. A heart champion is not defined through the legacy of trophies on the shelf. They have learned to embrace every- day experiences of life that foster authenticity and genuineness. Scoreboard champions sometimes do as well. Yet, the emphasis on scoreboard winning takes precedence over any other life experience. Being number 1 becomes an identity. As a result, life becomes imbalanced. Other aspects of life are often neglected. Relationship skills, spirituality, community values, and sensitivity to anything other than personal ambition often suffer.  Listening closely in 12-step communities reveals a similar mentality among those seeking sobriety. The goal in winning is to “put the cork in the bottle” and to count the number of days since last acting out. While commendable, many times it becomes the end goal. It becomes an identity. Other important relational skills are often overlooked.

Heart champions are a different breed and 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 not just about winning. It’s not just about maintaining sobriety. These things matter and are important. But, for a heart champion it’s about the preparation, the sacrifice and the sweat and engagement of uncertainty. It’s is about making meaningfulness from life experience. Whether you win or lose on the scoreboard, a heart champion’s life is determined within—before the game is ever played and independent of the score at the end of the game. For an addict this must be the focus even when sobriety is failed. Addicts who are resilient learn to bounce back by gaining insight and learning lessons in each failure. Becoming a heart champion has to do with connecting congruency with values of the heart through consultation and accountability. A heart champion is more concerned with being true to one’s heart and not just winning or losing. Becoming true to your heart takes a willingness to go deeper and find meaningfulness in all of life’s endeavors, including failure.

It’s not like heart champions condition themselves to lose. Rather, 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. Her priority is knowing that she is connected to herself, embracing all of herself, the good, the bad, and the ugly. She understands that life is a tapestry weaving together the bitter and the sweet, success and failure, and triumph and tragedy. Positive results are fine and desired, but fundamentally, a heart champion has already determined that they are “an unrepeatable miracle of the universe.” Heart champions understand that no victory will add to this reality and no defeat will take away from it. It is already etched into the stone of destiny that exists in their heart. The mentality of a heart champion must be cultivated in the life of recovery from addiction. Recovery underscores that winning isn’t everything. It requires that you never let the outcome of any behavior define who you are. Step 4 teaches that we embrace all of ourselves, both good and bad.  Recovery is experienced when you can experience failure and recognize that it is not who you are but what you have done.

It is always helpful to have individuals on the world stage model being a heart champion. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Coach Williams model components of being a heart champion that supersede their victories or their losses. Both want to win. Yet, the principle of finding their deepest meaningfulness is anchored to being a heart champion regardless of the results on the scoreboard.

Addicts must commit to cultivating the depth and breadth of being a heart champion. Addicts who burn brightly in the beginning of the recovery journey soon flame out when the components of a heart champion are not forged.  No matter who you are, transforming meaningfulness from mundane moments in struggle and failure is necessary to embrace the brilliance that exists deep within you. Heart champions courageously embrace the everyday challenge of living sober because it opens the door for the personal brilliance that resides in the depth of their heart. These are the benefits of average common-place challenges that open the deepest well of brilliance in a heart champion.

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