“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Those words from Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s, have been repeated by coaches to thousands of players ever since, from Pee Wee football and Little League to the NFL and Major League Baseball. It’s a credo not only for the field but also for life.
Jason Dorland, author of Chariots and Horses: Life Lessons from an Olympic Rower, was raised on that kind of thinking. He lived by it. He thought of it as the only path to excellence. He passed it on to others. But when he reached the pinnacle of his sporting career—in a race where seconds and nanoseconds make the difference between victory and also-ran—he came to see that philosophy as an obsession that hurt him mentally and physically.
“It defined me,” he says. “Every time I walked into a room I assumed everybody thought, ‘There’s the guy who came sixth at the Olympics.’ When the race goes sideways and the outcome isn’t what you anticipated, and you don’t have the tools to deal with it, you fall down pretty hard.”
An Olympic rower, Dorland was a member of the 1988 Canadian eights crew heavily favored to take gold in Seoul. On race day, the team faltered and fell out of medal contention. Dorland went into a tailspin. “It defined me,” he says. “Every time I walked into a room I assumed everybody thought, ‘There’s the guy who came sixth at the Olympics.’ When the race goes sideways and the outcome isn’t what you anticipated, and you don’t have the tools to deal with it, you fall down pretty hard.”
Losing the Winning-At-All-Cost Attitude
As Dorland gained perspective over time, he didn’t like what his winning-at-all-costs attitude had turned him into—someone addicted to anger as the path to excellence. When he started coaching he decided to take a different tack. Dorland coached the Shawnigan Lake School senior boys’ rowing crew in British Columbia to four national championships, but he taught his athletes that the excess stress that comes from obsessing about winning can actually decrease performance—not to mention create pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs.
Today Dorland counsels his athletes to find satisfaction within, to strive for excellence that isn’t based on comparison. “You could not create a more destructive and constricting message than telling kids that only winners are worthy of celebration,” he says.
And Lombardi would likely agree.
As he looked back on his legacy, the iconic coach said of his most famous dictum, “I wished I’d never said the thing. I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”