Ken Jones: Westwood's handling of sporting adversity delivers lesson in maturity

The iconic gridiron coach, Vince Lombardi, was credited with such immortal homilies as: "Winning is not everything. It is the only thing"; and "You never lose. But sometimes the clock runs out on you." Although actually first uttered by predecessors, they are at the core of a reputation famous for its refusal to countenance defeat.

Winning is what Lombardi was all about and, in the context of a football boom and the climate of the time in which he worked - taking the Green Bay Packers to five championships in 10 years - it made him a great man in America.

I've heard it said, and it's true I'm sure that Lombardi once dismissed the philosophy expounded in Rudyard Kipling's poem If as subversive drivel. You may, or may not, think that Kipling had it right, but, either way, losing happens. The trick, in sport, as in life, is knowing how to deal with it.

With his victory in the BMW International last week, Lee Westwood emerged from a two-year slump which had seen him fall from fourth to 246th in the world golf rankings. Last year, Westwood's earnings fell to less than £300,000 from more than £2m in 2000 when he led the Order of Merit. Until a top ten finish, his first for 2.5 years, at the European Open in July, he had picked up only £23,112 from nine starts. "All sportsmen are prepared for winning. Nothing prepares you for losing," Westwood said to Tony Stenson of The Sun newspaper. "Not just losing, but failing spectacularly. Doubts crept in. I thought about throwing away the sticks. Pride kept me going. Pride in the knowledge that I was brought up not to go down without a fight. I am a working class lad who made good and I wasn't prepared to let that disappear without some sweat."

If grateful for the support he received from family and friends, and David Leadbetter's technical assistance, Westwood came to realise that recovery could only come from perseverance and inner belief. He recalled being taken by his father to a pithead in Worksop and told that his burgeoning talent for golf was the envy of men who laboured underground.

Jim Murray, late of this life and the Los Angeles Times, the raciest American sports columnist of his generation, once wrote a piece entitled, "Whatever happened to Frank Merriwell?" Fifty years go, Merriwell was the fictional hero of all American small boys. To advance such a character today, no matter where or what the culture, would provoke salvos of raucous laughter. Because - to use phrases younger brethren probably think quaint - Merriwell gave his all and lost with a smile.

Today, failures at the international level of sport are frequently reported as disasters no matter how difficult the circumstances. What price England's footballers and their head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, if Saturday brings defeat in Macedonia? As with many things English, the residual arrogance of Empire lies behind this and the viperous criticism that will doubtless result if England fail to establish parity with South Africa after the the fifth Test, which starts at the Oval today.

Dependant on what they have previously achieved, the sportsperson's attitude to defeat varies. "First or nothing," is, more or less, what the Olympic gold medallist Matthew Pinsent said after he and James Cracknell finished forlornly in fourth place at last week's rowing World Championships. Going back in time, Sebastian Coe could make no more than a token effort of shaking hands with Steve Ovett at the medal ceremony after defeat in the 800m at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. "It was as though Coe had been handed a turd," Clive James wrote.

The immediate visible result of disappointments in sport is often tears, to my mind an unacceptable response in the mature athlete. Tearful at the moment that England won the 1966 World Cup final, Bobby Charlton was never openly emotional when things went against the team, no matter how important the event. "It might sound harsh, but if I ever saw a player crying when we lost I felt that he could no longer be trusted," Charlton once told me.

Scorn and applause, exoneration and abuse, indignation and sympathy are things with which athletes have to live. "I only lost a tennis match. It's not the end of the world," Boris Becker famously said after a loss in the men's singles final at Wimbledon. Lombardi would not have approved. He would have read it as conduct unbecoming a competitor.

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