A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


A shrill whistle blast penetrated the high school gym. A clenched fist waved in the air while an accusing finger pointed out the teenage transgressor.

"Thirty-five!" an authoritative voice intoned. "You’re pushing!"

The muscular young man with the number 353 on his basketball jersey groaned and grimaced, kicking the ball and stamping his foot like a 3-year-old who doesn’t want to take a nap. His coach stormed onto the floor to suggest, loudly and crudely, that the official who made the call is visually, mentally and ethically impaired – not necessarily in that order. Meanwhile, fans focused their wrath on the referee’s appearance and ancestry, offering recommendations that are physiologically impossible and genetically unlikely. The entire gymnasium seemed to rage with vented anger and released frustration.

And you know what happened? Nothing.

No matter how many tantrums were thrown, not matter how many ugly epithets were flung, the referee’s call stood: a foul on number 35. For all that belligerent effort nothing changed – except perhaps the diminished dignity of those who somehow seem to believe that you can leave your humanity in the car when you go to the gym.

One of the great lessons that sports should teach us is that there are certain things that are always going to be beyond our control. Referees, coaches and players all make countless decisions during the course of a game. Some decisions are good, some are not. But even when a decision is made that is obviously incorrect, agonizing over it is a waste of time and energy (come on, be honest – when was the last time you saw a ref listen to his hecklers, blow his whistle and say, "I’m sorry, I must have been wrong. Let’s take that foul off the books and start all over again"). The most successful coaches and players focus their attention on responding to events as they happen, not on trying to change things after they’ve already taken place.

The same principle is true in real world settings, and it can be viewed from a variety of different contexts. No amount of yelling can reconstruct a carelessly broken heirloom. A dying relationship isn’t revived with water that has already passed under the bridge. A wound won’t heal if you keep picking at the scab. And if you want your garden to grow you’ve eventually got to stop plowing the same ground.

Get the idea?

We are imperfect people living together on an imperfect planet. Our success here is not determined so much by our ability to control the external forces that influence our lives, but in our ability to respond to those forces in a productive and positive way. When bad things happen, as they inevitably will, the successful person will accept the challenge, and instead of wasting precious time and energy shaking a fist at the heavens and raging about the unfairness of it all, they will focus their attention on the most important matter: figuring out a way to deal with it.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with protesting injustice when we see it, or fighting for our rights when we truly believe we have been wronged. That is an appropriate way to respond to certain kinds of challenges. But we’ve got to pick our battles carefully and save our best efforts for the fights that really matter. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves constantly at war with a world that is crammed full of frustrating possibilities at home, at work, at school, at church and on the basketball court.

Especially on the basketball court.

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--- © Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through