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Finding Excellence

I’ve always been intrigued by excellence and those who seem to have achieved it. As a coach, I knew I wanted my teams to achieve at a high level, and I knew I needed the right approach to get them there, so I began by studying Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach of the Green Bay Packers. Lombardi reportedly once said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” What a great aphorism—succinct, memorable, and (as this English teacher appreciates) parallel in its syntax. The Lombardi quote appears on posters, and it’s been repeated countless times. It’s an easy line to drop into a pre-competition pep talk, and it feels good because we all love winning.

Just one problem with it though: it’s not true.

Winning is not the only thing and believing that it is will not lead you to excellence. I realized this when thinking about the measure for excellence for the cross-country teams I coached: earning medals at the state cross-country finals. The top five finishing teams of the 400+ that start the tournament are rewarded by being introduced and led up onto our awards platform. The crowd roars, and the runners who are introduced by name have medals placed around their necks. Parents and photographers elbow their way to the front and snap pictures. It is a scene of color, noise, energy, and excitement.

Runners are on the awards stand for about six minutes.

That fact is what made the “winning is the only thing” philosophy fail for me because over the course of the year between trips to the awards platform, our runners ran every day or almost every day. Our girls typically each logged over 14,000 minutes of running (which would be about ten full days if someone ran 24/7), and our boys usually each ran over 21,000 minutes (every minute for over two weeks) in preparation for the state championships. Fourteen to twenty-one thousand minutes…all to enjoy the six minutes of “winning” on the awards stand? Winning can’t be the only thing. Winning has to be about all that has gone into those thousands of minutes of preparation and all the growth that has come from that dedication.

When I realized that, I knew I had discovered the path toward excellence. I also knew that if I could put it into words, I could help others who wanted excellence in any of its forms in their own lives. As I read further about successful people, I discovered that, no matter what area their success had come in, their achievement occurred, like a last place runner determined to improve, as a result of their efforts each and every day.

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