School of sport: Winning without goals

Seemingly, no-one will dare to write in print that he wants to play for his country or be incredibly rich!


A favourite feature of school magazines is a collection of photos of the leavers, alongside their favourite quotation and their ambition. In one school magazine recently distributed, one person’s ambition is “To help out everyone with the little that I have whenever I am able to do so and make a difference in someone’s life”; another one states, “To be the best version of myself”. These are obviously commendable, honourable ambitions, as is, “To make the world a better place, to make it safe for everyone and allow people to dream and imagine without limits”. Seemingly, no-one will dare to write in print that he wants to play for his country or be incredibly rich!

It is strange, because all the motivational speakers will tell youngsters to aim high, to dream big, to have big ambitions. Nora Roberts is quoted as saying, “If you don’t go after what you want you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward you’re always in the same place.” Mark Twain tells us to “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people do that but the really great make you feel that you, too, can somehow become great”. In short, all are saying, if you want to succeed you must be ambitious — and conversely, if you are ambitious you will succeed. Coaches of school teams and parents will dish out that line as well.

Sports stars too will tell us it is every small boy’s dream to play sport for his country. However, if that is indeed so, then there are millions of adults who will be totally disenchanted because they have not achieved their ambition, as so few do actually get to play for their country. Does that mean millions will never be happy because they do not achieve their ambition? Is their happiness and fulfilment dependent on their ambition? Do we have to be ambitious to succeed?

A recent feature on the BBC Sports website looked back at the life and career of one of soccer’s superstars, the Brazilian forward Rivaldo. It noted that he won the Ballon d’Or, was named Fifa’s World Player of the Year and scored for Barcelona what many consider to be the greatest hat-trick of all-time while he also won the World Cup and the Champions League title. He had won, and done, it all but the article pointed out that he “disproved the widely-held belief that we must dream big to achieve great success” because it was reported that his “dream” was simply to play for his local club in Brazil, Santa Cruz. So, how did he achieve everything he did without having the ambition to do it all? Where does that leave those who say we must dream big in order to succeed?

In fairness, the article notes that Rivaldo did not, and could not, have big dreams because the desperately poor upbringing that he experienced would not allow that – “Dream big, they say. Unless your upbringing does not allow it.” However, we learn in the article other qualities that perhaps are more important than simple, straight, strong ambition. We learn that “as much as he loved playing football, he was as content catching grasshoppers or training cockerels for fighting”; he had balance and perspective in his life, not being totally consumed by his ambition. A team-mate of his, Simao Sabrosa, recalled that Rivaldo was “very calm, focused on his job, working every day to be better. Off the pitch he was very shy, but also considerate and caring.” It was those qualities which made him successful, not ambition. He was modest and humble, saying that “As a poor child, the idea of one day being … a world champion with the Brazilian national team, it never crossed my mind. My dream was just to be a professional for Santa Cruz. That, for me, was already enough.”

The Everly Brothers recorded a highly successful pop song in 1958 called ‘Dream’. The song no doubt was written as a cry of the heart from a man to his beloved, yet the lines could equally be addressed to his ambition. “When I want you in my arms, When I want you and all your charms, Whenever I want you, all I have to do is Dream, dream, dream, dream”. The chorus however contains a warning: “Only trouble is, gee whiz, I’m dreamin’ my life away”. There is the danger; we may be encouraging youngsters to dream their life away.

Are these words above written by a small person belittling ambition? No, the reality (as opposed to dreams) is that we may not have to go after what we want; sometimes it comes to us. Are we perhaps dreaming our life away? We can actually win without goals!

  • Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email: [email protected]

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