Commentary: Gaining From Losing

Shelby Linneman (left) and Emma Howe each hold four soccer balls, one for each year they’ve played for the BHS girls team. They’re the team’s only seniors. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Shelby and Emma’s persistence this season has been inspiring

By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit

When I photograph high school baseball games for the Brentwood Spirit I always stand where the light is best, in the fence opening next to the visiting team’s dugout. So I get to hear everything the coaches and players say. Every team has a different personality but two things can be said about almost every group of guys I’ve stood next to over the past four seasons.

First, a team’s overall level of happiness is completely based on how big of a lead it has. When they take the lead, suddenly it’s like everybody in the dugout wakes up and starts chattering positive comments. If their advantage grows to four or five runs, the supportive engagement blossoms into happiness. Most every guy is talking and laughing and life is good. With an eight-run lead it’s like they’re all high – they cheer every single play, laugh hard at every joke and just generally seem to be in love with one another.

The second thing I’ve noticed is that the polar opposite happens when a team falls behind. A one- or two-run deficit cuts the chattering and cheering in half. Somewhere between being four to six runs behind, the dugout turns into a tomb. If they’re behind by eight runs or more, the silence festers into bitterness. Coaches and players complain, blame and argue. Obscenities are muttered.

I share all this not to suggest that you’re shallow if you have more fun winning than losing. We can all agree that winning is a blast, whether our team is in the World Series or we’re playing Monopoly. But from what I’ve witnessed in the visitor’s dugout, winning is often seen as the ONLY possible benefit of competing. Nothing can be gained from losing.

That’s why this spring I’ve been inspired by the Brentwood High School girls soccer team, especially its two seniors, Shelby Linneman and Emma Howe.

Shelby and Emma have both started since they were freshmen and are closing in on their final game in Brentwood uniforms. They’ve helped the Eagles win nearly 40 games. Shelby has led the team in scoring for two seasons and Emma has been a steady presence on defense. In the past three years their teams earned two conference championships and amassed a record of 24-4 in the league.

Then came this season. When the team started practice in March, coach Cory Grage expected at least 19 girls to come out. But only 14 showed up to fill the 11 positions. At a school as small as BHS, that can be a big difference. And it has been. The Eagles are heading into the district tournament on Monday with a record of 3-14. They’ve been shut out 11 times. For Emma and Shelby, who’ve won back-to-back conference titles, it’s been a shock.

“It’s been very difficult and frustrating,” Shelby told me. “It’s way different from the past. I’ve had to adjust to it, accept it, suck it up and move on.”

The thing is, both Emma and Shelby knew early on that the season would be long and humbling. And exhausting – try playing soccer for 60 minutes with only a couple of players on the bench. And yet the two seniors never quit. They mustered enthusiasm for every game, instructed and encouraged teammates and never stopped fighting. And almost every time, they rode home feeling the sting of another loss.

But the next day they were back to practice at Norm West Park.

That inspires me. I’ve lived long enough to know that life has its win streaks, but life also has its 3-17 seasons. Whatever you do doesn’t seem good enough. Your legs and lungs are burning but there’s nobody to step in for you. The bleachers look sort of empty.

I’m inspired because the Eagles’ 2014 season reminds me a couple of losing seasons in my life, times when everything went wrong at once and stayed wrong for a while. In those dark days it seemed that the only thing I succeeded at was being persistent. But now that I look back and things have improved, I suppose that persistence is the only thing I needed to succeed at. I suspect, I hope, that Shelby and Emma will someday feel the same way.

I was at McGrath Elementary School’s field day on Friday. One of the activities was a tug-of-war with a long rope. Two kindergarten classes were going against each other. After a long struggle, one class started to win. As the losing class was pulled forward, one by one they fell and let go of the rope. Except for one girl.

Though she was one of the smallest students in the class, she was the anchor, on the very end of the rope. She had it in a death grip and a determined grimace was on her face. Abandoned by her classmates, she was taking on all 10 of the kids on the opposing team and losing spectacularly. They dragged her across the grass for a good six feet before her teacher, realizing she wasn’t going to let go, knelt down and rescued her. “You can let go now,” the teacher said quietly, and the girl finally did.

What was running through that little girl’s mind? Did she think she’d actually beat the other class by herself, one against 10? I doubt it. But she sure as heck wasn’t going to give up.

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