The joy of effort, not winning

At the age of three, my daughter still doesn’t understand what winning is, or that it even exists.

She knows that athletes can receive medals, thanks to her dad Mahe’s efforts at the Rio Olympics, and from watching New Zealand athletes at the recent Commonwealth Games – cue standing her nana on a plastic step-stool to receive a plastic medal. But she’s blissfully unaware of what it all means.

While I know this will change, for now it’s exactly the way I like it. Once a week at athletics, when the three-year-old girls line up in a running race, she takes her friend’s hand and they simply run to cross the finish line - happy, giggling and, again, oblivious to what it means to win. I figure she has her whole life to work out what this winning business is all about.

My own parents raised me to always try my best, never applying any form of pressure or any mention of winning. Always just the words: “We love watching you.”

The 2018 Commonwealth Games delivered so many outstanding results and, of course, not all athletes reached the podium or finished where they had aspired to.

Dame Valerie Adams produced one of the most inspiring and exceptional performances, even though she only claimed the silver medal in her event. To me she exemplified the perfect attitude of giving it her absolute best.

Her preparation was limited due to the birth of her daughter, Kimoana, but she was able to produce a season’s best. She finished satisfied with the results purely because she gave it everything.

Valerie was inspiring in a different way at these Games, for producing her best efforts despite falling short of her previous accomplishments. We knew she simply did her best.

As an athlete, the biggest disappointments for me always came, not from finishing with a particular placing, but when I didn’t have my best possible performance. In my more recent role as spectator and supporter of my husband at rowing regattas, my biggest hope when he races is not that he wins, but simply that he performs to his potential. And that he’s able to execute his best race, because ultimately how can you be disappointed with that?

Participation in sport is a topic that is often debated, with some sports organisations moving the focus away from taking a score. I can’t say that I’m a supporter of just ‘participating’ in sport, but I’m also not a supporter of talking to kids about ‘winning’.  

I believe that the best message for kids (and adults, for that matter) is to do your absolute best, because that’s a skill you can transfer to anything for the rest of your life.

The joy of effort was one of the Olympic values I became aware of when I attended the young participants session at the International Olympic Academy in Athens in 2014. As an elite athlete, I had admittedly lost sight of what this meant.

But, following my retirement, I began to realise that it’s one of the most simple and important things in life – every single one of us can enjoy and appreciate the joy of effort and doing your best.

So, as I watch my daughter running, holding her friend’s hand, giving it everything, her little red face radiating with joy, I like to think that she will always find those things in the sports and activities she pursues, regardless of whether she’s winning or not.

If there’s anything we can take from our Commonwealth athletes across the board, it’s simply that they tried their best, and that’s something we can all do.

We don’t need to teach our kids about winning, but we do need to drive them to do their best. Whether it’s doing their homework, being kind or playing sports, we simply can’t all be the best and don’t need to be, but we can strive to give our best effort.

Let’s not forget: sport has so much to teach us. And sport produces great people, not just great athletes.

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