Against all odds

By Dan Bauer

Few things in life have a failure rate that can compare with athletics. Perhaps only the lottery and carnival games can guarantee a higher rate of disappointment. It begins the first day you step on the court, the field or the ice. Dropped balls, missed baskets and bruised-up knees greet the enthusiastic youngsters who step into the world of organized athletics. From the beginning, failure is your constant companion as you struggle to acquire the skills needed for your particular passion. With Mom & Dad at your side, bloody noses and bruised egos are minor setbacks on the road to becoming an athlete. To survive, persistence must become your middle name. 

Unlike most other challenges in our life, athletics comes with no guaranteed outcomes. If I take on a difficult math class and perform the work, I can get an ‘A’ along with anybody else who puts forth a similar effort. On the job, if I perform my job according to expectations I will be virtually guaranteed of a raise or possible promotion along with those who do the same. I am even guaranteed a home for eternity if I can follow those 10 little rules for getting into heaven.

In athletics we are all guaranteed only the opportunity to compete – not succeed.

If I want to become a CPA, I can. Here are the steps, complete the required classes, do your internship, and you are a CPA. There is a plan that works if you follow it. Yet no coach can give you a fool-proof blueprint to win a championship – not even the ones who have done it. There are an incalculable number of factors that includes first and foremost – talent.

Followed closely by experience, teamwork, coaching, discipline, work ethic and last but not least – luck.   

For the past 20-plus seasons, I have put my skates on in November knowing full well that the odds of my team winning the WIAA state tournament were considerably less than the odds that I wouldn’t. A season ago, 92 teams started with that dream – only one achieved it. Taking on those unfavorable odds isn’t unfamiliar to any of us. Some of us buy lottery tickets, some cheer for the Cubs and some of us search to find four leaf clovers. While each of those presents withering odds for success, none will require the time, effort, failure and personal sacrifice that is standard fare in athletics. The physical and emotional investment in athletics is significant, but it comes with no guarantee of success. 

This past November I signed up to do it all over again. Another new season, complete with a new cast of team members, a new game plan, new enthusiasm, but no new guarantee that we will stand at center ice at the Alliant Energy Center as state champions. 

So the question begs, with failure to achieve our ultimate goal such a long shot, why do so many kids and coaches demonstrate such eagerness to start each new season?

The answer quite simply is the journey. It’s a non-fiction novel complete with failure, triumph, perseverance, conflict, heroes and villains. There is no program, class or activity in school that provides the life skills you absorb from the athletic experience. A bold statement that can certainly be debated, but a discussion I welcome. Simply stated, it prepares you for the rest of your life.

But whether we win or lose, the experience, the lessons that we learn everyday are much the same. The value of the athletic experience is not tied exclusively to winning – but to the preparation, the battles, the friendships and the day-to-day journey that teaches the lessons that will last a lifetime.

Records will be kept, ratings compiled and trophies won along the way, but in the end, one team will win its final game, all the rest will finish their season with defeat. One team will be declared the “winner” leaving the rest of us to be, I guess, “losers.” 

Winners and losers; two simple words with a stark contrast in meaning as wide as the Grand Canyon. Yet the fine line that often separates winners from losers can be as thin as the razor sharp blade cutting across the battlefield of ice. 

It is completely unfair that we only have two words to define combatants of an athletic contest or furthermore an athletic journey of nearly four months.  Merriam-Webster adds about 100 new words to their dictionary every year. They have yet to add one that bridges that unstable and arguable gap between winners and losers.

As my own team carries forward a 1-10-1 record into the New Year, I know one word that does not describe my players. Against all odds, they, along with all the other teams across the state, accepted the challenge back in November. When it comes to dedicating yourself to this journey and all of the blood, sweat and tears that goes with it, there are no losers. 

As Gene Hackman once said in Hooisers, “That kind of commitment and effort deserves and demands your respect.”

What it doesn’t deserve is a five letter word. 

Dan Bauer is the head hockey coach at Wausau East High School. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and read more of his work at