Last weekend, our youngest son’s soccer team played in a tournament in Gatlinburg. Back in August, when they first listed it among the other scheduled games, I thought, “Outdoor soccer in the Smokies in December?! Brrrrr!” But in true Tennessee fashion, it was weirdly warmish, with the main precipitation coming in the form of pea-soup thick fog on Sunday morning.
I’m an introvert by nature, preferring to avoid the spotlight in favor of watching others somewhere along the fringe. And whether you’re there for a sporting event or not, Gatlinburg is a prime people-watching location. Actually, it’s stimulus overload. But with all that we saw over the two days we were there (this includes the hordes of visitors traversing the main strip of shops and restaurants and a big black bear which wandered right up to the window of the cabin), it was the faces of the players and their parents which I was most interested in.
As I’ve been writing fiction for several years, I’ve become fascinated by learning what makes people tick and using this unscientific data to influence the arc of my storyline and the backstory of my characters. Anytime a person stands in front of you, presenting himself in some particular way, there are actually thousands of experiences at work in his words and actions and choices. The smile which doesn’t quite meet his eyes or that tiny twitch in the corner of his mouth or his fingers tap-tapping on his leg. People are just so complicated.
At a big tournament like this one, you see what Jim McKay, the late ABC sports announcer, would call “…the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition…” The thing I realized about myself as I watched a nearby game conclude on an adjacent field to the one where my son was warming up with his team, was that I was actually more interested in the faces of the losing team than those of the winning team. The winners jumped and cheered and hugged each other as they celebrated a hard fought victory. Not much variation there. But the losers…that’s where you see the range and depth of emotions. Some boys dropped to the ground and pounded the dirt with their fists, some offered a hand to help those teammates up on their feet, some cried unrestrained tears, and some stood motionless in despair. Then there was one 11 or 12 year-old kid who approached a player from the opposing team to congratulate him. He extended his hand in a friendly handshake, then he went along and continued shaking the hands of the rest of the team. His teammates noticed and joined in. No doubt this is his coach’s customary instruction after a game, but he did it with maturity and grace.
It stinks to lose. Even someone like me who never played sports and usually shies away from competition can own up to the fact that it’s no fun being on the losing side. But when we teach our kids about integrity and good sportsmanship and perspective, and they can be consistently honorable in the face of winning and losing, they are true champions no matter the final score.