Demoralizing Defeat to Stunning Success: 3 Lessons I Learned from High School Football

Football season is upon us. I really don't watch much. I loved the 10 years that I played, and would still rather play than watch. And I have so many memories (good as well as bad) from my experience of playing for the Swansea Tigers and Furman Paladins.

Although it was twenty years ago, I’ll never forget the feeling of losing the football state championship my sophomore year in high school. The final score of 50-28 makes it seem a lot closer than the game actually was. In truth, our opponents crushed us, physically and emotionally.

The next fall, we started off with a 1-3 record, losing two straight games in double-overtime. The season did not look promising.

However, we wound up winning the next 11 games, including the state championship. Even more, my senior season we were triumphant in all 15 games, giving us two straight championships. (And before you think that it was all because of me, they also won the state championship the following year, the year after I graduated.)

How did we go from demoralizing defeat to stunning success? Through planning, working, and enduring.

Plan Ahead
Every team and individual needs a clear and thought-out mission. Without a purpose, how will you measure success? 

The goal for our team was the same every year: “To be the best that we can be.” Some years, this could mean winning four games; other years, fifteen. But we were determined to work hard in season and out of season, to give us the best shot at winning. 

Every year, our coach laid out a plan that would help us be the best that we could be. He didn’t wait until August to start preparing for the season. While we could not control everything that happened during the season (including injuries, weather, and bad calls by the refs), we could control how much we prepared. 

You need to set some goals, and here is a quick way to set them:
  1. Ask yourself, “What do I want one, five, and ten years from now?” Dreaming is a huge part of planning.
  2. Be sure to commit those goals to writing. Writing them down will help you clarify and be accountable to them.
  3. Under each goal, set up 3 - 5 action items under each goal. If your goals can be done in one step, your dreams are not big enough.
As Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Work Hard
After our coach laid out our plan for the year, we had to execute it. The off-season schedule included lifting weights three or four days a week, two weeks of spring practice, speed training in the spring, conditioning all summer long, scrimmages against other schools, and a week of two-a-day practices (followed by a week-long camp of four-a-days). We were expected to show participation in all these events, or face consequences. If I didn’t get stronger and faster, I would risk losing my position to someone who did. Slack off and not pass the conditioning test? There would be extra post-practice running. If you didn’t go to camp, you would not play on the varsity team. Period.

The in-season training included more than a dozen hours of practice on the field every week, continued weightlifting and conditioning, and watching game film. All of this was for just sixty minutes of football once a week for up to four months.

While it may seem like overkill, we knew that no one was going to hand us success. We had already felt the sting of defeat, and we did not want to go back there. 

Endure the Hardships
During my junior season, we could have just given up after having just one win in the first four games. We could have panicked when one of our top players dislocated his shoulder. We could have become demoralized when another top player (who started for four years at a Division I school before going on to play in the pros) was removed from the team for disciplinary actions in school.

But we kept moving forward. We absorbed the licks, pulled together as a team, and remembered our goal (“to be the best we can be”).

A football is an odd shape, so it will bounce in odd directions. Likewise, no matter how hard you work toward your goals, there will be some things that you just cannot control. People working with you will not carry their weight. People working for you will quit. The computer will crash. You’ll get the flu. 

When (not if) these things happen, you have a choice. You get frustrated and give up. Or you can keep moving along the path. And these things may be a blessing in disguise. The difference between a stepping stone and a stumbling block is how you use it. 

You, too, can move from defeat to success. First, make a plan to evaluate where you are and where you want to be. Second, work like it all depends on you. Third, realize there are things you cannot control and endure the hardships that come your way.

Even more, the benefits of playing sports, especially team sports, go beyond championships and statistics. Competitive team sports help build social skills and character development. This doesn't mean that children need to play in competitive leagues at a young age (I didn't play organized football until the 8th grade). In fact, unlike with individual sports, athletes in team sports don't reach their peaks until later on in life.

Let your children play team sports, but let it be fun and not stressful for them. There are lessons for a lifetime in store for them.

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**first image courtesy of ElvertBarnes via flickr
**second image courtesy of tome213 via


  1. Greg often has told our children, "luck favors the prepared man" true! Our job is to keep our eyes on our ultimate coach (God), keep moving forward, and trust Him for the outcome...blessings will surely follow!