The Arizona Cardinals, the Americal Football team I support, are the best team in the National Football League at the mid-point of the season, having only lost one game by the narrowest of margins. The 2018 team were, by contrast, historically bad in virtually every statistical category, winning barely three games and ending up with the worst record across the League. The team has been on a generally upward trajectory since I have been following its trials and tribulations for nearly 30 years, although this has been along a shallow incline as opposed to a steep curve towards elite performance. In that time only a handful of seasons have enabled us fans to glimpse the view from the uplands of high performance, a spot reached only by the very best teams. Even then, the sport forces there to be only one winner, standing proudly atop the NFL mountain as SuperBowl winner.
Mostly my time as a fan has been spent languising in the valleys of mediocracy, of false promise and dashed hopes, making peace with the idea that for many NFL fans hope triumphs over reality on a season-by-season and week-by-week basis. Expecting a loss yet hoping for a win, celebrating the wins when they come but never anticipating them, daring to dream yet with an underlying assumption that they won’t come true.
Living in the valley of mediocrity, it turns out, offers some comforts. With few expectations come fewer disappointments. If your team is slated to be one of the best in the season yet fails to deliver on its promise the emotional fall to a new reality is further and harder than for those whose teams were never predicted to make it up from the valley floor.
Teams that start off the season hot, hitting an early win-streak, heighten the allure of the possible, the increased potential of winning it all, yet those that can’t sustain their early season promise (looking at you, Pittsburgh, 2020) leave their fans back in the valley, bruised by the precipitous fall back to sea-level.
Then there is the relief that yours is not one of the teams that perennially climb near to the top of the mountain range year-on-year (looking at you, New England, Green Bay, New Orleans, Kansas City…). What a roller-coaster it must be to know that season-on-season your team your team will compete, putting you through the emotional wringer, reaching the final eight and, sometimes, the Superbowl itself, sometimes winning, sometimes not, yet always being a contender. Each season having games that come down to the last play, where everything is on the line, where the tension, the stress, the possibilities are heightened to rarified levels, where success or failure comes down to a few seconds, a play here and a play there in a game ricocheting around a three hour, tortuous roller-coaster of emotional tormet.
It is these fans I gaze at in amazement. What must it feel like to start from assumptions of success? How do you handle the journey that follows, how do you cope with the ecstacy of winning and the pain of losing, often all in one game, usually across every season? Is it time that enables you to set your sights higher, experience that enables you to cope with these experiences? There can be comfort in low expectations and unfulfilled hope, a blanket of mediocrity insulating us from the painful changes in weather that follow the ups of peak performance and the downs of close losses.
It’s particularly hard to follow your team on an unexpected climb up from the valley floor when you start to encounter a terrain and climate that is unfamiliar and for which you are ill-equipped. As I am finding this year with my Cardinals currently sitting atop the NFL at 8-1, such a journey requires preparation or, if it is unexpected, rapid adaptation. How do I prepare for the heightened emotional experience that follows? How do I recognise that a team I am used to seeing as mediocre is, by all objective standards, an excellent team? How do I judge it not the ghosts of previous incarnations of the team, but by the reality of the present? And how, critically, do I adapt my expectations accordingly to adjust to this new reality? To recognise that this team is different, that the ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory has been inverted?
For in truth is this not why we are often drawn to sport, encapsulating in a game or a season the vagaries of life? Lives where we might desire fulfilment but crave comfort, wish to explore new terrain but find the unfamiliar uncomfortable, aspire to increased expectations but fear failure. We must constantly engage in these challenges for a failure to do is a dereliction of our duty to ourselves to explore and express our unique human potential. Settling for low expectations, for the familiar, for the comfortable is to fail to fulfil our potential.
As a fan of a long-time mediocre NFL team can attest this is hard enough in parts of our lives where we have no control, watching the team perform on a weekly basis. And yet surrendering to the roller-coaster ride provided by our sports team is perhaps one way we can engage with these challenges in a safe way, learn to cope with them and find mechanisms that work for us which we can then apply elsewhere in our lives.
Hidden under those layers of comfortable mediocrity, if we dig deep enough, yearns a fan seeking redemption, of seeing their team finally break through and finally make it to the pinnacle of their sport. To step out and embrace the roller-coaster of emotions that such a journey entails can be uncomfortable, unknowing and uncertain. Yet it remains safe, engaging as we do from the comfort of our sofas or our seat in the stands.
To really engage with the rich tapestry of life’s experiences in our own lives requires so much more. We quite literally have skin in the game. Because however hard we try to convince oursleves otherwise, we still, really, want to stretch ourselves out of that place of comfort and into somewhere new, guided by our soul to a more fulfilling place.
Ultimately I believe life is about finding ways to express our own unique purpose. To do that requires each of us to open up to the full range of experiences and emotions along the way, however unfamiliar and uncomfortable.