Sunday, March 27, 2011

Parkinson's Disease and the Vancouver Canucks: The Trouble with Winning

Canadians seem to get excited about very few things. We are proud, but typically in an understated, apologetic, less than enthusiastic way. When it comes to things like flag-waving, oaths of allegiance (do we even have one?) and our national anthem, we lack the exuberance of our southern neighbor. We rarely make a lot of noise, considering it brash and evidence of unseemly bravado. But when it comes to hockey, our nation throws off its reserved demeanor, lets out blood-stirring cheers and expresses its partisan pride to the surprise of almost everyone. Perhaps it is because hockey brings out the heart of our great citizens: a rugged, hardworking, heads-up sort of people who are fiercely independent yet capable of working cooperatively with almost anyone. Or maybe "hockey" (the origin of the game's name is unknown) is just the kind of simple game that requires ice skates, a curved stick and the ball with 2 flat sides called a "puck" (origin unknown), which evolves in a cold climate with wide-open spaces big enough for an ice "rink" (from Middle English for "an enclosed area for a jousting competition").

Hockey is Canada's game. It was invented, popularized and made into a professional sport in Canada years before it was played seriously elsewhere. Right now, the Vancouver Canucks are on top of that game, leading all 30 teams of the National Hockey League. Maybe it is not so extraordinary, given that over half of all NHL players are Canadian (less than 25% are American). Perhaps Vancouver was stirred by hosting the 2010 Olympics last year and showing off Canada's passion by winning gold medals for both men's and women's hockey for the first time in Olympics history. Regardless, Canadian fans seemed to be bursting with national pride while standing as King of the Hill in their national sport.

But there is a problem with winning. The ecstasy of winning evaporates when it is not repeated. Choose any "winner" and sooner or later he or she will fall from the victory pedestal. The choruses of praise can turn to discordant boos and, despite what we know to be inevitable, that "all good things must end", we cannot seem to sincerely embrace a "loser".

And that is the problem with Parkinson's disease. For instance, there is some statistical evidence to suggest that a disproportionate number of "Type A personalities" end up with PD. They are used to being winners, but are then told they will face a future of numerous notations in the loss column. They will likely lose steadiness of hand, suppleness of body, stamina, sleep and stability. In some cases, this unpredictable disease often threatens one's confidence and sometimes dishes out cognitive confusion. Undergoing a series of these bubble bursting losses is often the equivalent of a career-ending injury.

As I enter my 6th "season" challenged by PD, I have become convinced that there is a great need for compassion for those dealing with losses. Who will inspire the "losers"? When our "game" is over most of us will have suffered significant and even embarrassing losses. Few of us will pass through our allotted days unscathed. Those who do, the "winners", will have missed out on the depth of human character that is formed by defeat. Frightening as it may be, we all know in our hearts that hardship in life can foster either greatness or devastation, each forged in the furnace of failure.

Winning in hockey is dependent on one thing: the number of goals scored. Everything else is secondary. There must be a winner and a loser. We all love to win and hate to lose. In fact, if one listens to the cheering crowds (and Vincent van Gogh and Vincent Lombardi) they would have us believe that, "Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing". But in the game of life that is just not true. We who are confronted by the apparent indignity of disease and its consequent losses are being given a great opportunity. It is a calling to compete with courage, to learn from our losses and to offer those lessons to others who walk with us or follow. In life, as opposed to hockey, it is the losses that count the most.

I see wisdom in the words of Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman runner to win 3 gold medals at a single Olympics. She said:
Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time.


  1. My life consists of three major facets: My family, chiropractic and coaching basketball. All three have wins and loses. I agree we all want to win and root for the win but I think the real winners are the humble and those who seek help as well as help others. As always I thoroughly enjoy your blog.

  2. Agreed 100%. Winning without humility is losing. Thanks for the note. Encouragement always welcome.

  3. "If you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose."

    Wow! Thought provoking words of wisdom - really makes me think about achievement from a whole different angle - learning from mistakes - ensuring ego doesn't get in the way of growth.

    And as you say Bob, there exists a depth of human character that is formed by defeat.

    Poignant stuff...