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Do You Play for the Love of the Game? (Leadership Lesson from The Mighty Ducks)

Do You Play for the Love of the Game? (Leadership Lesson from The Mighty Ducks)

Have you ever let the pressure of winning make you forget you play for the love of the game?

When the game (or the entire season) is on the line the fear of failure can overwhelm us. The pressure we feel inside ourselves in these situations is enough. But when we add the stress of letting down our teammates, coaches, and parents it can crush us. 

It’s enough to make us want to quit. Especially, if we have experienced this situation and failed.

Sports and competitions are a great way to challenge ourselves and find out what we are made of. They can make us dig deep inside and help us push past the limits and obstacles we face. But they can also cause us to place our worth and identity in what we do instead of who we are. 

So what can we do in those pressure-packed situations to give ourselves the best chance to succeed? 

We need to focus on the fundamentals. And one of our fundamentals of being a leader who makes an impact is Seeking Excellence.

Seeking Excellence is not about setting your sights on winning a trophy. It’s about not letting anything stop you from remembering you play for the love of the game.

If you want to learn more about all 12 Fundamentals of Impact that you can use to fulfill your greatest potential as a student, athlete, or leader check out our free course.

Seeking Excellence is not about a trophy. It's about remembering to play for the love of the game.

If You Miss the Shot, You Will Let Everyone Down

As a youngster, Gordon Bombay had the opportunity to win a championship for his youth hockey team. All he had to do was score on a penalty shot. It was a one-on-one play against the goalie. Gordon had practiced the shot hundreds of times on his own.

Before he took the shot, Gordon’s coach, Coach Reilly, told Gordon he had a chance to be the hero. But he made it clear what the consequences were if he missed. Everyone on the team, including Coach Reilly, would be disappointed.

The truth is sometimes the fear of failure does get favorable results on the scoreboard. There are times when it motivates us to take action out of desperation. And when it leads to victory we often attribute the success to someone being driven to meet the challenge.

If Gordon’s shot had been just a couple of inches to the left maybe Coach Reilly’s fear-based message would have worked. But the puck hit the post and bounced out. Gordon dropped to his knees. He had received the message loud and clear: if you can’t win, there’s no point in even trying. After that game, Gordon didn’t step foot in a hockey rink again.

That is until a judge sentenced him to 500 hours of community service for a drunk driving offense many years later. Gordon’s community service assignment: coach a rag-tag youth hockey team with no uniforms, no organization, and no talent.

You Have to Show Everyone How Much You Want to Win

At first, Coach Bombay’s approach was to act like he didn’t care. He was just coaching to fulfill his hours and get back to his job as a hotshot lawyer. It was a job where he won nearly every one of his cases. But when Gordon learned he would be coaching against his old team, the Hawks, and Coach Reilly, he decided he needed to whip his players into shape.

Gordon believed he just needed to make his players have a greater desire to win. Once they wanted it bad enough they would get a taste of victory. Then, they would gain the confidence they needed.

Do you believe the more you want to win the more likely you are to experience victory on the scoreboard?

Is your mindset to play for the love of the game or has your mentality shifted to winning as you grow older?

One of the problems with playing for the love of the game is that it becomes the scapegoat when we lose. We just didn’t want it bad enough. But the problem is there are too many factors outside our control that affect the outcome. Even the greatest professional players like Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and Wayne Gretzky lost games. Did they just not want it bad enough on those days?

At the same time, if we are hyperfocused on the outcome we can let mistakes make us hesitant. Or we may quit altogether like Gordon. When this happens, we can shift the blame to someone else and boast about what we would have done if we played.

When we find a way to play for the love of the game, we give ourselves the best chance to claim victory on the scoreboard at the same time. 

if we enjoy what we are doing we are more likely to do it at a high level

Is There Another Way to Seek Excellence and Fulfill Our Potential?

Frosty Westering was a college football coach who was familiar with defeating his opponents on the scoreboard. In over 40 years of coaching, Frosty never had a losing season, won 75 percent of his games, and won four national championships. 

Not too bad for a guy who let his players sing Christmas carols during warmups, gave them popsicles on hot days, and made them pick up every piece of trash in the locker room (even if it wasn’t theirs). 

Frosty knew that if we enjoy what we are doing we are more likely to do it at a high level. And he knew that players don’t need to win to gain confidence. If so, then we are only as confident as our latest result on the scoreboard. Rather, he knew his players needed the confidence that came from him letting them know he loved them no matter whether they won or lost.

Without a doubt, Frosty allowed his athletes to play for the love of the game. And because of this attitude, his teams were able to play with excellence and strive toward their potential a vast majority of the time.

Seeking Excellence Comes With a Cost: Making Mistakes

Reaching our full potential requires mistakes. From both players and coaches.

Gordon Bombay tried to shame his players into wanting to win more. He tried to have one of them fake an injury for a chance to win a game. And he brought in a new player that had talent but took away from their team chemistry.

Eventually, the team quit on their coach. Not because they were afraid to lose but because it was no longer fun to play. Gordon didn’t know what to do. Until he talked to his old friend, Hans, who ran a sporting goods store where he used to buy his skates.

Hans reminded Gordon that the greatest tragedy about him quitting hockey was not that he could have become a professional. It was that he quit doing something he loved to do. Gordon needed to fall in love with hockey again. And then he needed to show his kids how to play for the love of the game.

We Need to Find a Competitive Advantage

When we play for the love of the game it doesn’t mean there are no winners and losers on the scoreboard. It doesn’t mean that everyone should get a trophy. We need competition and we need to know there is a chance we will lose if we want to reach our full potential. 

Is there a tool we can use to give ourselves a competitive advantage and our best chance to succeed?

Frosty Westering talked about using the three sides of a coin to find our competitive advantage. Each side of the coin represents a different attitude we can take as we Seek Excellence in our competitions.

Our competitive advantage comes from giving it our best shot.

Trying to Be “The Best”

The first side of the coin (we will call it heads)in finding our competitive advantage is trying to be “The Best.”

When we have the attitude that we are trying to be “The Best” we are competing against other people. We play the comparison game so that, win or lose, we can always justify our position. But we can always find someone better than ourselves and we can always find someone worse.

You might wonder, “Isn’t that part of a competition…competing to prove your superiority to others?”

The problem is when the outcome determines our worth then we are more apt to quit like Gordon Bombay. We are also more likely to cheat. And we are more liable to try to intimidate and manipulate others so we come out on top. These are all things that we will regret doing later on.

Eventually, with the mindset of trying to be “The Best” even winning isn’t enough. As Coach Reilly reminded his team, “It’s not worth winning if you can’t win big!”

Trying to Do “Your Best”

The second side of the coin (we will call it tails) is trying to do “Your Best.” 

When we flip to this side of the coin we move away from comparison to others. We put the focus on ourselves and only worry about what we can control. We don’t complain or make excuses.

When Coach Bombay started coaching, the team had no uniforms and simply went by “District 5.” Gordon helped his team focus on themselves by giving them new uniforms and a team name, “The Mighty Ducks.” He talked to them about how ducks work together when they fly. Giving them an identity helped the players focus on having the attitude of giving “Your Best” and not comparing themselves to other teams.

However, giving “Your Best” is limited to a singular effort at a particular moment in time. Sometimes, we use it as a crutch when we are afraid to really stretch ourselves to our full potential.

But there is a third side of the coin that gives us the ultimate competitive advantage.

Giving It Our “Best Shot”

The edge of the coin is our third side and this is the attitude of giving it our “Best Shot.”

Just like the edge of the coin that is never-ending, giving it our “Best Shot” is a continuous process. No matter the external results we keep reloading, aiming, and firing at our target. Giving it our “Best Shot” is all about the process. It’s impossible to not move toward excellence and our full potential when we continually give it our “Best Shot.”

Another aspect of this attitude that gives us the ultimate competitive advantage is not being afraid to fail. 

In the league championship game against the Hawks, the Mighty Ducks had a penalty shot for a chance to win the game. Gordon picked Charlie Conway to take the shot. Charlie was not the most talented player but he had shown the most character and leadership throughout the season. 

Coach Bombay asked Charlie if he had been practicing the move he taught him, the triple deke. He told Charlie he might miss the shot or he might make it. However, the journey of the team to make it that far was what mattered most. 

“Take your best shot. I believe in you Charlie…win or lose.”

When we have the attitude to give it our “Best Shot,” one shot or one game is not the end. They are just one step on the journey to fulfilling our greatest potential.


Don’t Be Afraid to Take the Shot

Whether it is a penalty shot in a hockey game, an essay in our English class, or applying for our dream job, we can’t be afraid to take the shot. Because in the future when we look back on our lives, we won’t be disappointed with the results on the scoreboard. But we will be disappointed if we didn’t have the courage to give it our best shot in everything we do.

Coach Bombay learned that the will to win is not the most important attitude for a player. It is the ability to surrender the outcome and play for the love of the game.

We don’t need the stress of trying to win to make ourselves, or other people, feel good. But we do need pressure. Pressure from inside ourselves to give our best effort because we love the game or activity we are competing in. When we love something we give our very best to it…even if it doesn’t give us the external result we want.

Have the courage to give it our best shot in everything we do.

For a list of other movies that provide important lessons check out our 75 Engaging Leadership Movies for Students in High School.

If you’re a teacher who wants to use deep learning activities with The Might Ducks check out our movie lesson plan.

To learn more about the 12 Fundamentals of Impact and how you can use them to improve your leadership, check out our free Write Your Own Story course.

Just remember that when we play for the love of the game we give ourselves the best chance to be successful. However, it doesn’t guarantee that we will win on the scoreboard. It guarantees that we are on our way to Seeking Excellence and one step closer to reaching our full potential.

And that has nothing to do with what the scoreboard says…it has everything to do with how we play the game.

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Jon Barth

Jon Barth

Teacher - Coach - Mentor

I love to share stories, tools, and resources to help students become leaders who make a difference in the world by giving away their gifts and abilities.

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