The word wasn’t shouted, but that didn’t make it any less of a command. Marcus, lean for his age and wearing the blue and white singlet that had been handed down to him by his father paused in the middle of his wind up. He’d suffered a humiliating and embarrassing defeat at the hands of an Jeffrey Linkletter. Linkletter. The guy’s name could be mistranslated as “Apostrophe” for gosh sakes. But Marcus recognized the tone. He lowered the head gear he’d been about to throw into the bleachers with what he just knew would be a satisfying bang.
“What do you think you’re doing?” His father asked.
“Who do you think you are?” Great, first the tone, now parental clichés.
“I only just…” The frustration was causing pressure to well up behind his eyes with the injustice of the world. He wanted to say that he was only twelve years old, that Jeffrey was a fish and shouldn’t have been able to beat him and that the ref had been unfair. He clenched his fists in frustration.
“Unclench your fists.”
“I can’t even be angry now?” What was Dad’s deal today, God!
“Marcus, you can feel any way you want. That doesn’t matter in the long run. What people will remember. What you will remember about today is how you react. You lost. Guess what? It happens. Should you have lost by getting rolled through from that headlock as you were pinning him in the first eight seconds of the match? No. Of course not. That’s your move. You own it. No one gets out of you. At least they haven’t for a long time, until today. Why’d it happen?”
This was what Marcus had been trying to avoid. Blame. He hated being blamed for things.
“Because I got too high and put weight in my butt instead of keeping it up and using leverage.” The words sounded dejected. Like a kid being forced to recite a bible verse when the minister drops by for a Sunday meal.
“How do you feel?”
“Stupid. Angry. Like a loser.”
“Do you like that feeling?” Marcus pulled a face.
“No. Of course I hate it.”
“Good. What are you going to do about it.”
“Well I was going to throw my head gear and feel better about it.” Marcus said.
“And what would that have helped?”
“Well, I would have felt better.”
“Sure, but what about after the first five seconds.” Marcus thought about it. He tossed his head like he was trying to get a bothersome fly to leave him alone. “I’d have felt stupid.”
“Because I hate when people throw their headgear and stomp and act like little kids about losing, but Dad, I am a little kid.”
“135 lbs isn’t that little Marcus. And it’s not like there’s a day when you will suddenly feel like you’re old enough to be mature.”
“The only way. The only way to be more mature- or improve yourself in any way- is to act as if you already have the good quality you want.”
“You mean like, if I want to be honest I have to tell the truth as if I’m already an honest person even if I’m used to ‘stretching’ the truth?”
“For example, yeah.” Marcus looked a bit sheepish. When he was younger, he’d been prone to tall tales and prevarication like most kids, but his ability to be funny enough to avoid trouble didn’t develop until much later. His dad smiled kindly at him.
“Huh.” Marcus thought for a moment, “So basically, you’re saying that if I want to have good sportsmanship I have to start doing it now.”
“Sportsmanship matters a little when you win, but it matters a whole lot more when you lose. That’s one of the reasons we do sports Mark. We’re all gonna lose in life at some point or other- maybe a lot. But it’s how we act when we lose that determines whether we get back up for another try and how much people want to help us when we go for another try.”
“Right, cause anyone can be tough when they win.”
“But only someone really tough can be tough when they lose.”
“Exactly. You got it. Now, what are you gonna do now?”
“I’m gonna focus and get ready for my next match so I can pin this guy and come back in the round robin.”
“Right. You mad?”
“Good. Use it. Let it build slowly into focus so you can win. I want you to visualize how the match will go, what you’re gonna do and what he’s gonna do and I want you to get psyched up starting about 15 minutes before you get called. Start warming up when they call the 112’s okay?”
Marcus couldn’t remember whether he’d won the next match or been out of the tournament. I was fairly certain that they’d gone out for ice cream after the match, just as he would do with his son Jack 20 years later. He thought about that lesson once in awhile and was glad he’d learned how to get up gracefully when he got knocked down.
There had been knocks much more difficult than losing to Linkletter and it was good he’d inoculated himself against them early in life. All in all he was glad he didn’t grow up to be the kind of guy who would throw his headgear.