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The Sports Medicine Doctor: The Definition of Win

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By Andrew W. Gottschalk, M.D., Director of Sports Medicine

Champion Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, Cole
Memorial Health System

Last Friday, LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers were officially introduced to the world at a press conference that was — of all things — surprisingly humble. Media fanfare engulfed LeBron. However, gone was the overwhelming, million-dollar, Hollywood party like Miami threw for him when he joined the Heat in 2010.

Regardless, reporters lined up to ask LeBron variations of the first question always asked in sports: Are you going to win?

“I know what it takes [to win] … But I also understand it won’t be easy,” LeBron said. He spoke of patience and expectations with an air of maturity that has developed right alongside his basketball skills these past few years.

To understand why LeBron’s response was so astute, we need to take a step back and talk about sports psychology. Sports psychology is a relatively new field of sports medicine that deals with the mental health of athletes and others associated with sports (coaches, owners, fans, etc.).

On the surface it might seem silly, but one focus of sports psychology is defining what a “win” is. We tend to think the answer is obvious: A “win” is when a fan goes to ESPN.com, looks up his team, and sees that a W is marked in the column after last night’s game. But a sports psychologist would tell us that the W or the L doesn’t tell the whole story.

For example: A team plays a much better team, but instead of getting blown out, the lesser team plays a close contest. Do the players on the lesser team hang their heads as losers? Or does the coach say, “That was a game to be proud of. We learned a lot. Next time we’ll be even better.”

Another example: A team loses a game, but one of that team’s players sets a personal record. Does that player walk away a loser? Or does the player think, “I’m proud of myself, and I’ll use this pride to work with and elevate my teammates.”

Let’s come back to LeBron James and the Cavaliers: A team rebuilds and a hero comes home. If the coaches are clever, the players are dedicated, and the atmosphere at Quicken Loans Arena is electric, will Ohioans still buy Cavaliers tickets and Cavaliers jerseys — regardless of the score at the end of the night? Likely so.

So LeBron told Cleveland and the rest of us to be patient and the Cavaliers would win. He didn’t elaborate.

We all know that sometimes things don’t go the way we wish they would. Just ask Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2010, Gilbert promised he would do whatever it takes, but his Cavaliers lost LeBron to the Heat that year. Instead of imploding, the Cavaliers rebuilt the team, redefined their definition of a win, and moved on. Skip ahead to 2014. LeBron is back. The Cavaliers have made some key trades. And they have potential to compete at the highest level.

A tremendous high school basketball player came to me some years ago. Unfortunately, she kept dislocating her shoulder. It was no one’s fault. Genetically, she had a loose shoulder that didn’t like to stay in its socket. But she was determined. She told me she wanted to win. After months of physical therapy and eventual shoulder surgery, her shoulder pain subsided, but she was no longer the basketball player she had been. So she joined the track team and became a sprinter. She was a tremendous runner, eventually going on to place at the state level and go to a Division I university on scholarship.

“Whatever it takes to win” sometimes yields different results than we expect. The basketball team loses a key player but still competes. An athlete achieves personal goals though the team loses the contest. A basketball star becomes a track star.

Whether it’s the basketball game, the track meet, or the game of life, winning is exciting and challenging. It’s fulfilling and worthwhile. But rarely is winning exactly what we think it will be. This makes us stronger, not weaker. More competitive, not less. And more equipped to face the challenges ahead.

Andrew W. Gottschalk, M.D., is the Director of Sports Medicine at Champion Orthopedics & Sports Medicine of Cole Memorial Health System and team physician for St. Bonaventure University athletics.

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