I came from a very good private school in Pennsylvania that could boast of several strong athletic programs. A few years back, delivering a chapel to the entire school during what turned out to be a perfect field hockey season, I dared ask the question, "is this the best team we've ever had?" Of course the girls who had worked so hard to develop their skills to this high level were quite certain of the answer. Who can argue with a 18-0 record and a state championship?
I'm sure they were a bit taken aback when I confessed to them that I didn't think they were the best. Risking a fusillade of catcalls and other debris, I went on to tell them that I didn’t believe they could be, simply because no one person or team could ever reach that level of perfection. They were cynical of course, knowing I didn’t really understand what they had accomplished. But that wasn’t the case at all. These were supremely talented athletes to be sure, and tireless in their efforts to reach that magic goal of a season without a loss.
Certainly they had the best record, no doubt about it. But did that make them the best team ever? Every athlete and coach knows that the line between winning and losing can be a very narrow one. Weather conditions, the vagaries of officiating, injuries, uneven playing surfaces, even crazy bounces of the ball—all of these can have decisive effects on the outcome of a contest. From game to game players may perform below their normal excellence and others may play way over their heads. The levels of competition vary from week to week, let alone from year to year. I’m sure that teams with perfect records sometimes get lucky in catching a “better” team on an off day, or equally fortunate to “win ugly” when they should have in fact lost.
The best ever? Well that’s probably a foolish claim to make, given the changing nature of competition, and the impossibility of comparing performances of one era with another. Just try engaging your fiends in a debate about the all-time best collegiate or professional teams and you’ll be guaranteed to start an argument that no one can win.
After bursting the collective bubble that many of my students had created around their season, I went on to say something I believe is far more realistic and important than any claims they could make about being the best. I asked them, “are you satisfied that you did your best?” Now that is a question we can consider, and one that is essential for all of us in coming to terms with what we, or anyone else, should expect of our efforts.
While we can never be the best since it is unknowable and unreachable, we can nonetheless hold ourselves to a higher yet more relevant standard—doing our very best. I have no doubts that our field hockey team, in raising the bar to reach an artificial measure of perfection, ended up motivating themselves to reach higher and work harder than they thought was humanly possible. Was it their best? Only they could tell. But did that championship season transform them from being satisfied with mediocrity, with playing for themselves more than excelling as a team? I think so.
Almost every day I cheer for our students at Ascension to do their very best in everything they are asked to do. I’m not sure I know what their best looks like, and I suspect they and their parents would have different estimations of what they are capable of accomplishing. But of one thing I am sure—all of us have been given unique talents to develop and apply to the challenges of each moment. While no one should ever be faulted for not being “the best”, all of us need to be held accountable for giving our best thought, our best effort, our best preparation, even our best spirit, to the important work that is ours to do.
When students trudge off a volleyball court after a heartbreaking loss, when they hand us a report card or test with a grade lower than anticipated, or when they tearfully report that they didn’t get the part in the play, the question that I want to ask them most is not why didn’t you win, or what’s wrong with you, but, “did you give your best?” If they can look themselves in the mirror and say “yes” and mean it, then I believe they’ve done all that any of us could expect of them. And, as is sometimes the case, they know they’ve failed to do what they judge to be their best, then they’ve taken a giant step to self-awareness that will strengthen them for the inevitable challenges they will be facing the rest of their lives.
The question of “who’s best?” is a good one for those who like to argue over things no one can settle. It sells a lot of air time on ESPN and kills a lot of time in bars and tailgate parties. But each time we dare ask ourselves if we’ve done our best in whatever contest or trial life has thrown at us, then our ability to answer that in the affirmative will, in large measure, determine how successful and satisfying we will judge our life to be.