Aint Nothin Soft - by Tiffany J. Brooks - Silver Medal, Silver Lining
By Tiffany Brooks
The unimaginable happened. After outscoring opponents 56-1 in the 2004 Olympics, claiming all three previous Gold medals, and going into the Gold Medal Round in Beijing with a perfect 8-0 record, Team USA Softball has claimed Silver instead of Gold. Many softball players and fans I've talked to recently have considered this a tragedy, a great storm cloud overhead, somehow darkening Team USA's previous accomplishments. After all, they say, this was the LAST Olympics. How could we LOSE? How could we not go out with Gold!? Well, first of all, I don't see getting a Silver Medal in the Olympics as a LOSS, and I heartily congratulate our players on their accomplishment. Most countries in the competition would love a Bronze, let alone Silver Medal. Can you imagine Venezuela being heartbroken over getting a Silver Medal? I think it's important that we put this in perspective and see the silver lining to this storm cloud.
Some of you may remember my column from April of this year entitled "Plays Well with Others" in which I proposed that we stop whining about the elimination of Softball from the 2012 Olympics and begin actively working toward reinstatement for 2016. As part of that article, I also advocated that the US, and other "top-tier" teams should actively help develop and advance the level of play worldwide to ensure a competitive level of play and our future as an Olympic sport.
Here's a big assertion: We have taken that initial step by winning a Silver medal rather than a Gold. I believe that Team USA winning Silver was one of the best things that could have happened to Softball. Well, actually the very best thing that could have happened for the development of our sport and for the future of softball in the Olympics would have been for Venezuela or the Netherlands to have won gold and silver and China to have gotten bronze. But in that single act of Team USA NOT winning gold, there is a glimmer of hope for other countries' teams. It opens the door a crack. "If Japan, can beat the US, why not us?" they will hopefully be saying.
So, how did Japan beat us this time around? One might use the old saying "On any given day, any team can beat another." While this is often true, I believe there was more to this win than chance – there was strategy. To explain this, let me digress for a moment.
Japan has an old and beautiful culture. I lived there for a year and learned many things from the Japanese and their culture and traditions. Sometimes we in the Western World see a submersion of ego as somehow "robotic" and somehow inferior to the "rugged individualist." This is unfortunate, and leads to many cultural misunderstandings. Many Asian countries (Japan included) simply put "we" above "I" in general. Aren't we always preaching as coaches that there is no "I" in "team"? Just a thought. In these times, and especially in the softball world, I believe we all need to become "world citizens," and care less for arbitrary lines drawn on a map and more about the human condition and, as I've said before, the development of the sport. In the past (and carrying into the present), we have had a "frontier mentality" in the US, especially as a "younger" country. This has led to us being tougher, more resilient, and more competitive, I believe, and has emphasized the "I"... relying on oneself, taking on all comers, etc. In turn, this ego-centrism creates amazing individual athletes. Ever wonder why Australia is so good at so many sports also? They also have very much a frontier mentality and a "younger" country, yet with far fewer folks living there and huge sections of the country sparsely populated with a harsh environment (everything living there is truly survival of the fittest), they turn out amazing individual athletes as well. I think understanding these differences is key to better understanding other cultures, and relevant to this column...to understanding our competition and Japan's Gold Medal win. Consider, for example, that Japan was willing to take a pretty severe run-rule beating in Pool Play rather than show us their best pitcher. We were seemingly so concerned about being dominant and winning every game, that we not only tipped our hand early by showing Japan our best (Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott), but likely hurt the sport long-term by CRUSHING many of our opponents. We seem to have been caught up in the "I" of trying to walk away with everything and "going out with a bang" from what might be the last Olympics for softball.
There is something to be said for approaching the games as Japan did: it is better to lose a battle and win the war. This is an example of the differences between philosophies in countries and peoples, the difference between the "I" and the "we." Don't get me wrong; I cheered for the US all along, but also found it painful to watch sometimes when it seemed we were crushing opponents, because I knew the IOC was watching and taking notes, and on a more human note, I've played with and against a number of the girls on the other teams at one time or another, and I could imagine how they felt. In the end, I'm sad that the US did not get the gold, of course, but I do believe it was that silver lining in the storm cloud I alluded to in the beginning. That silver lining, our taking Silver instead of Gold, may help, in some small way, toward giving other countries some hope of being competitive eight years from now, assuming we get softball re-instated. I hope they see that silver lining, that small crack in the door of USA Softball dominance, put their foot in the crack, and work very hard to develop their programs. I hope too, that we take this next eight years to HELP them develop to top-tier competitors. In every sport, there are perennial favorites, and there are underdogs who create upsets. The desire to become the favorites, the top seeds, and to be the underdog that rises to the top, surprising everyone, is what drives many of us in sport to greater heights. I congratulate, again, the women of Team USA Softball on your winning the Silver. In winning silver rather than gold, you may have inadvertently done more for the future of our sport than walking away with another gold.
Extra Innings: Future Olympics
Ever wonder why Softball and Baseball don't have both male and female teams? Ever watch Men's Fastpitch at the National/International levels? I have, and it's amazing! I firmly believe we should be lobbying to not only get Softball and Baseball re-instated in 2016, but to re-enter with both male and female teams in both sports. After all, Softball is not the female version of Baseball. Nearly every other Olympic sport has both male and female contingents or individual athletes. I have heard many of the arguments regarding removing Softball and Baseball, and one of the most compelling, financially, is that many host countries have to build expensive stadiums that may never be used again. If this is correct, then doesn't it make more sense to get DOUBLE the usage during the games by having both male and female teams playing? Seems logical and more inclusive to me.
Did you know there's a Men's National Softball Team, already? Go to:
www.usasoftball.com, click on "National teams," then Men's National Team. And yes, there is a Women's National Baseball Team (which played in the IBAF-sanctioned III World Cup in Matsuyama, Japan August 24-29). Go to: www.usabaseball.com and click in "Women's National Team."
Until next time, see the silver lining, not the storm cloud, and play HARD, 'cuz there "Ain't Nothin' Soft" about it!
As always, I welcome comments and column suggestions at email@example.com