Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It's Better to Have Played and Lost...

I have always been a loyal fan of my sports teams. From the moment I began following them as a kid, I felt this special connection, and I’ve been emotionally invested ever since. Watching games, it’s like I’m out there with them, living and dying with every play, and anyone who’s brave enough to sit next to me has to understand that it’s even money as to who will disgustedly throw something first – me or the head coach.

Some of the happiest times in my life have coincided with my teams’ successes. The night the Houston Rockets won the first professional championship in the city’s history, I danced through a traffic jam of fellow Houstonians, high-fiving and hugging strangers, some of whom looked like they’d just been paroled from the TV series Lockup: Raw.

Of course, the flip side is that when one of my teams loses, I’m absolutely devastated. The game replays through my mind over and over, and I think about what might have been had this play or that play gone differently. Listening to sports radio is not an option, and I quickly flip past ESPN, because any mention of the loss feels like a kick to the stomach.

I freely admit that this obsession is completely irrational, and confessing the depth of it is somewhat embarrassing. I often question why I care so much about something that I contribute nothing to, but I don’t know…it’s just part of who I am.

So on January 7, 2010, when the Texas Longhorns – my alma mater and lifelong passion – were set to play the University of Alabama for the national title, I could barely contain myself. This was going to be one of those where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-shot moments for me, a night for which I would always remember every detail and every twist of emotion.

Utterly useless at work, I got to the sports bar nearly six hours before the game, and by kickoff, my tapping foot and beating heart were going so fast I worried they might simultaneously combust.

But mere minutes into the game, on the Longhorns’ fifth offensive snap, everything changed.

Texas senior Colt McCoy – the all-time winningest quarterback in college football history and undisputed leader of the team – took a hit on his right shoulder that sent him back to the locker room.

In came Garrett Gilbert, a true freshman who had completed a total of 15 collegiate passes, all of which had come against second- and third-stringers at the end of lopsided Longhorn victories. And while he was a highly decorated prep star, he had never been in a situation like this before, facing the top-rated defense in the country on the biggest stage imaginable.

As Texas struggled to move the ball, and Alabama took control, I sat there grappling with myriad emotions. I was angry at the incredibly tough break, and I wondered why the Sports Gods were frowning on the Longhorns. I hurt for McCoy for not getting to compete in the game he’d been preparing for his whole life. I was stunned at how a season’s worth of anticipation could be deflated so quickly.

And in a strange way, I also felt relieved.

I know that sounds crazy, but once it became clear that Colt wasn’t coming back, any nerves or anxiety I had were gone. I was suddenly in a no-lose situation: if Gilbert somehow led the team to an unexpected victory, great. If not, the built-in excuse of Colt’s injury would prevent me from ever having to face the harsh reality of a Texas loss. I’d be able to tune into sports talk and log onto message boards and read every article without fear of getting upset or frustrated by any of it.

Over the next couple of days, though – after UT had fallen 37-21 – that relief slowly turned bittersweet. After all, your team only gets so many shots to play for a national championship, and this one evaporated before it ever got started. Plus, no one had believed the Longhorns could win, and I was hoping their performance would serve as a fully-extended middle finger to the entire nation. Instead, the story of this game would forever be filed in the “we’ll never know” folder.

So while I wasn’t suffering through any pain or disappointment, I had lost a real, viable chance of feeling joy and happiness.

And that was the rub.

Every so often, life presents us with the opportunity to achieve and experience greatness. And whether it’s pursuing a new career path, professing your love to an unsuspecting crush, cat-fighting for a rose on The Bachelor or anything else that our hearts may desire, it’s up to us to take advantage of these moments.

But like a poker player going “All in” to try to score a big pot, we have to accept the inherent risk that’s involved. Going after something we care deeply about demands that we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection and failure, of being completely embarrassed or humiliated.

And the higher we reach, the further we can potentially fall.

When I was chasing my dream of playing golf competitively, I turned my life upside down to try to make it happen. I learned to wait tables, studying harder for my menu test than I ever did in college. I picked balls off the driving range at a local country club – the same job I’d had as a 16-year-old – so I could play for free. I moved back in with my parents to save money, even though I knew that having to disclose that information on first dates would lead to an endless string of cold showers.

If I wasn’t lifting weights, I was practicing in the 100 degree Texas heat, buoyed by the belief that with each putt I rolled, with each golf ball I hit, I was getting one step closer to achieving my goal.

So it became increasingly frustrating to not see improvement in my game. While my technique got better – video images of my swing were similar to that of a successful tour pro – my scores did not.

I realized that what was ultimately holding me back was not a physical problem, but an emotional one.

I couldn’t seem to get out of my own way. When I wasn’t struggling with my lack of self-confidence, I was indulging in my fear of failure or worrying about what other people thought of me. I was a walking Psychology 101 textbook, and no matter how hard I tried, nothing ever got better.

After banging my head against the wall for two years, I finally decided to put my dream aside. It wasn’t easy, because for as long as I could remember, I had wanted to be a professional golfer. It was what I’d always thought my life would be about.

Suddenly, I needed a new answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The ensuing aftermath was tough. I didn’t touch a club for months, and I even had to stop watching tournaments on TV, because I’d end up berating myself for not being able to do what the guys on the screen were doing.

It was difficult to accept that my internal issues had railroaded me into surrendering something that was so important. I felt like I had the passion, desire and talent to succeed, but as my own worst enemy, I couldn’t stop sabotaging myself long enough to find out.

When I look back now on the experience, I feel as if I left something on the table, and I wonder if things could’ve been different had I found the mute button for my inner demons. With no sense of closure, the uncertainty still haunts me.

But it also gives me comfort.

Because while I was crippled on the golf course by a wide range of fears, the thing I feared the most was giving my dream every ounce of my heart and soul – only to have my best not be good enough.

That would’ve been an awfully tough pill to swallow, like getting your heart broken by someone you think you’re destined to be with. I don’t know how I would’ve handled it. And sometimes I question if, in some small, subconscious way, I held back – even just a little – to shield myself from the possibility of facing that realization.

If so, I executed the plan brilliantly, as my emotional shortcomings have since served as a crutch I can lean on, a rationalization as to why I came up short. So when I’m sitting in my cubicle, working a job I never thought I’d have, angered that I’m not on a golf course somewhere, I have a therapist’s pad full of excuses that I can hide behind.

Yes, it’s human nature to protect yourself. Nobody likes dealing with failure, and when something doesn’t turn out the way we want it to, our initial reaction is typically to question why we ever did it in the first place.

But the fact is that in order to experience life on its deepest and most meaningful level, we are required to take chances, to risk falling flat on our face in a heap of humility. And if we are not willing to drop our defenses and step out of our don’t-hurt-me cocoons, we will be sentenced to a guarded, flat-lining, even-Steven existence.

Like Mike McDermott said in the movie Rounders, “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle…but you can’t win much, either.”

As someone who has too often played not to lose, I can attest that it’s no way to be. Sure, it’s safer and more comfortable to “hope” than “know,” but I can’t think of anything worse than looking back on your life, knowing that it’s full of regret.

I’d rather do something about that while I’ve still got the time. So when the next opportunity presents itself, I want to approach it with an open heart, give it everything I’ve got, and accept whatever results – good or bad – may come.

After all, you only get so many chances to have fun in a traffic jam.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?