I remember the moment in my high school basketball career – you should understand that I'm using the word "career" rather loosely – when I stopped merely playing basketball games and began to play the game with confidence that our team would win.
My high school was, and is, in southeast Michigan. I graduated in a class of twenty-three students, and there were seven players on our varsity basketball team in my senior year. The school was not very large, though we had a nice enough gymnasium and good crowds to watch our games.
In my junior high and junior varsity years, the men who played varsity basketball seemed to me to be grown-up, muscular, and tall. They played against other teams whose rosters were filled out with other grown-up and muscular men. In those days, there were giants in the earth.
But when it was my turn to play as a senior, our team seemed to me to be overmatched. The boys at the other schools we played had grown into men, but we had remained boys. At least that's how it seemed to me until about half way through the basketball season of my senior year. In a particularly close game, I remember giving a teammate a high five after he'd made a good play. For whatever reason, we slapped hands hard – and I was shocked to realize how strong we both were. I thought to myself, "Wow, he's strong . . . , and we're going to win."
Feeling the physical strength in my friend made me realize that my teammates and I had in fact become strong even though I had not realized it. That high five changed how I thought about playing basketball. I no longer played with the unspoken fear that the other team could simply push us off the floor, though if they didn't perhaps, hopefully, maybe, please, we might eke out a victory. After the high five, I knew we could stand our ground against any of our opponents and win.
As I've grown and taken on more responsibilities, I've worked to remember the lesson I learned from that high five: It's easier to win, and the experience of competition is more enjoyable, when you play in the confidence that you can win. Whatever "winning" might mean to you at this point in your life, "play" with the confidence that you can win. In my role as a teacher, I spend a great deal of time persuading my students that they can, in fact, win: They can understand Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Physics; they can write a clear, concise, and elegant essay; they can draw the connections between the art, history, philosophy, and theology of the medieval period; they can articulate ideas and arguments that are deep and important.
Being confident of victory doesn't mean that you will always win: Frodo at the edge of Mount Doom shows that we can always be simply overpowered. But unless you're up against forces that will overrun you, taking on the task that lays before in the knowledge that you are up to it makes all the difference. Are the odds of success not in your favor? If you have confidence that you can win, you'll give yourself more of a fighting chance than if you imagine that you're too weak. If you combine that confidence with knowledgeably acting in the sphere of divine providence surrounded by friends who work alongside you, well, David and Goliath and all that.
I should say that later that season, we won the Michigan state championship in basketball for our division. It was the first time our school had won the state championship in basketball. Not even the giants who came before us had accomplished that.