• Arnest Lim

Triumph and Defeat: 3 Lessons from Racket Boys

Jubilation at success; intense gloom at failure, most of us have probably experienced these contrasting emotions at various points in time.


In many aspects of our lives, we've all had brushes with the complex and conflicting ideas of triumph and defeat. With different reactions to each encounter, there's always something we can learn from each situation. Just like us, the characters from feel-good sports K-drama Racket Boys deal with the same issues, emerging with their own takeaways. So without further ado, let's take a look at 3 lessons that this well-crafted drama can teach us about triumph and defeat.


Opening title card with the drama's Korean name.


Disclaimer: there will be spoilers for Racket Boys from here on out. so if you haven't watched it, I strongly suggest that you do so first before returning to this tab. If not, let's get started.


But first, a recap.


Racket Boys follows a group of middle school badminton players in the rural seaside county of Haenam as they strive to become national athletes. Our male lead, 15-year-old Seoul resident Yoon Hae-kang (Tang Joon-sang), is forced to relocate to Haenam after his badminton coach father gets a lucrative job offer there.


What his father doesn't know is that the team that he's now in charge of is short a member and on the verge of disbandment. As a last resort for survival, an extremely reluctant Hae-kang is recruited into the team. Thus begins the newly revived team's challenge-riddled path to reach the top, with each team member overcoming their own trials and tribulations on their way to success.


A very unwilling Hae-kang cringes after hearing his new teammates' lame cheer.

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"If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again."


Perhaps more recognisable as a popular proverb, this sentence is the perfect representation of main character Hae-kang's greatest struggle. An ex-badminton prodigy, our initially unwilling protagonist slowly rekindles his love for the sport and quickly becomes the team's ace. After triumphing over many opponents, including the nation's top-ranked male junior athlete, the self-assured Hae-kang sets his sights on joining the Olympic team, but ultimately loses in a draft match against a more experienced player.


Outwardly, he doesn't seem too affected by this, assuring his friends and family that he's fine. Eventually, his bravado fades as he succumbs to the pain of failure, breaking down at the realisation that his first chance at going pro has just barely slipped out of his grasp. That said, Hae-kang picks himself up quickly and resumes his rigorous training, determined to make the Olympic cut the next time round.


A defeated Hae-kang cries out his frustrations as his Olympic hopes just slipped out of his grasp, being so close yet so far from success.


Much like Hae-kang, I'm sure many of us have experienced the frustration that comes with trying your best to accomplish something only to fail when your goal was just within reach. It really hurts knowing that you've given your all only to fall short at the last moment. For situations like this, the drama teaches us our first important lesson, that we shouldn't have regrets about failure if we've done our best. Feeling sad about it is normal but you have to move on and focus on doing better in future, just like Hae-kang and his renewed drive to join the Olympic team.


You can't win every battle.


Have you ever felt the overwhelming need to continue performing well, especially after you've consistently been doing so? If your answer is "yes", you'll probably relate to female lead Han Se-yoon (Lee Jae-in), the nation's number one female badminton junior athlete. With a perfect competition win record, she's adored by coaches and reporters alike, all of whom are supremely invested in the rising star's sporting career. Solely focused on badminton, Se-yoon is determined to become the youngest member of the Olympic team. Unfortunately, this causes her to put a lot of pressure on herself to maintain her undefeated streak.


But of course, a cruel twist of fate sees her knocked out of a national competition by her second-ranked rival. Just like Hae-kang, she pretends that she's fine and that she has no regrets since she did her best, but underneath her tough façade lies a roiling mess of emotions. In her most vulnerable moment, Se-yoon cries out her pent-up stress in a moment of catharsis, the girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders tasting the bitterness of defeat for the first time.


Se-yoon's cathartic release after the weight of expectations finally becomes too much to bear.

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In today's increasingly competitive society, we've all probably felt a lot of pressure to maintain a high performance standard at some point. Although the constant fight to stay at the top is exhausting, it might have become so ingrained in you that one tiny mistake could bring your whole world crashing down. This is where the drama's second lesson comes in, it's okay to fail. As the ancient Chinese saying goes, "failure is the mother of success". Succeeding all the time is nice but sometimes failure is necessary for us to know where we stand and can act as motivation to improve. Just like with Se-yoon, failure can help us grow and mature, pushing us to surpass ourselves and achieve greater things.


You don't have to be first to be great.


Everyone likes to consider themselves the best at something. Be it an academic subject or a skill, some form of superiority always feels amazing (admit it, you've felt like this before). On the flipside, it never feels good to be second place forever and it's even worse when you've already put in a ton of effort. This problem is experienced by second leads Bang Yoon-dam (Son Sang-yeon) and Lee Han-sol (Lee Ji-won), albeit slightly differently from each other.


The boys' team captain and their best player (prior to Hae-kang's arrival), Yoon-dam inevitably butts heads with Hae-kang when they're forced to be doubles partners. As a more senior player, he believes that he's more deserving of the "team ace" title but a shocking loss during a practice match sends him into a depressive slump. Targeted as the "weak link" and following Hae-kang's lead throughout that match, Yoon-dam had unconsciously acknowledged that he was no longer the most skilled player.


A troubled Yoon-dam realises that despite being more senior, he's lost his ace status to the more skilled Hae-kang.


Han-sol on the other hand, is Se-yoon's doubles partner and though very skilled in her own right, she's perpetually in Se-yoon's shadow. While Han-sol initially seems fine with that, no one likes being second fiddle forever and she eventually snaps at Se-yoon, accusing her partner of keeping her around to make herself look better. Han-sol doesn't want to be treated as an afterthought to (the admittedly far more skilled) Se-yoon, especially because she also wants to achieve her own goals and dreams.


"Am I even a friend to you?" Tired of always being in her partner's shadow, Han-sol eventually lashes out.

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All that said, I personally believe that you don't have to be first to be great. As we've learnt previously, there's no need for regrets if you've already done your best, for you can't win every battle. In the same vein, coming in second can serve as a motivation to continue improving since you now have someone to use as your "goal".

It's quite apt that Racket Boys' final scene shows Hae-kang and Se-yoon facing off against Yoon-dam and Han-sol in a doubles match. Our young leads have all recovered from and became better because of their setbacks, and they're now facing the future with a renewed vigour.


We don't get to see all of them succeed by the end of the drama, most notably Hae-kang, who doesn't realise his Olympic dream. But at the end of the day, it's not the triumphs and defeats that really matter but rather is taken away from each encounter.


I can't say for certain if you've gone through the exact same problems as the characters in Racket Boys, but the valuable lessons they've learnt are undoubtedly applicable to our lives. I hope that after this article, you can take heart in the losses you've experienced and use them as motivation to continue soaring. Who knows, you might surprise yourself with how far you can fly.

Every triumph and defeat has a lesson. Use them to your advantage to soar higher and further than before.

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Racket Boys is the intellectual property of SBS and Netflix. No copyright infringement is intended.

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