Competition Is Great

Competition among people is underrated. I feel like I understand why: for too many people, competition is viewed entirely through the end result of the game, as in “winning” is the end result on the scoreboard, or the bottom line of the sheet and nothing else, which opens the door to bad behavior of all kinds. I don’t undervalue the “bottom line,” but the true value of winning is in being champion, not in just being perceived as the champion. Take the U.S. Women’s World Cup Team for example. If by some magical process, they could have been offered a chance to face the Japanese in the Final without any of the Japanese starters on the field, would they have taken it? I would like to think they wouldn’t. The title “champion” doesn’t mean a whole lot if you haven’t beaten the best. It’s likewise on a smaller scale for the guy you have to watch all the time at a simple table game to make sure he doesn’t cheat. It’s a real eye-roller. What does winning matter when it took absolutely no skill to get there?

But I think we’ve gone too far in the other direction when it comes to competition and winning. To lessen the sting of losing, we’ve told ourselves a few lies that have become commonplace in our culture. I hear them on playing fields all the time, especially with kids. Disclaimer: there are some games, especially for kids, that are purely to be played for imaginative fun and social interaction. I don’t knock those at all: I just don’t like the idea that all competition, especially in games and sport, serves only that purpose. It’s a weak idea, perpetuated by phrases like the following:

“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you try your best.”

Bullshit. Giving it your all on game day and getting blown out of the water should be cause for reflection. I played hard and got my ass kicked: why? Is it because my opponents got lucky or were invincible supermen? Of course not. Supermen exist in comic books only, and no amount of luck in the world will produce a 4-0 score in soccer, or a 35-7 score in football. When you are completely out of gas in round 3 of a mixed martial arts fight, “trying your best” rarely produces much. You get your ass kicked when you haven’t put in the preparation and the practice time like your opponent has. A couple of years ago, I watched a high school football game in which a few of my wife’s students were playing. I couldn’t believe these jokers. They got the ball shoved down their throat from start to finish. They were out-executed, but even worse, they were just pushed around at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They went hard for big hits like they undoubtedly see on Sports Center, and they were playing with the hope of winning, but you could see what the previous three months of preparation must have been like: half-assed training in the weight room, low effort in practice, etc. The final score was something like 44-10.

Getting beat because you are outplayed is one thing; losing because you didn’t prepare or hold yourself and your teammates accountable is another. If the latter is true, you fucking suck.

“You’re taking the fun out of the game!” shout the naysayers. “That’s terrible for self-esteem!” I disagree. When people put in the prep time and do the little things that matter in practice, and when the game is a test where they display their skill and grit, they have very real and tangible things with which to bolster their self-esteem, even in a loss! Therein is what really matters when we play these games. We like to put this in soft terms for some reason, and the message gets lost: “the real joy isn’t in the end result; it’s in the journey!” Translation: what you get in the end only matters in relation to how much you invested in the process. The top of the mountain is far more exhilarating for somebody who had to climb up than someone who got dropped off by helicopter. How many lottery winners does our society admire? By contrast, how many champions does it admire? Why shouldn’t people, especially kids, learn this about life? “Trying your best” on the playing field means making the decision to put in the effort, day by day, to be the best you can be, or at the very least, showcasing a skill that you’ve made your own. That’s what eclipses the scoreboard. When you haven’t done that, and you’ve justly earned a 44-10 ass-kicking, you shouldn’t be told “good game,” no matter how “hard” you played on the field. It wasn’t a good game. It was a shitshow from which you need to learn.

Failure is ok, after all. Skilled people in business, sport, and other aspects of life will tell you so. Failure can be a very powerful tool for getting better. Did you get knocked backwards all year long by one lineman after another? You need to hit the weights harder. Were you gasping for breath in the 70th minute? You need better conditioning. Were you consistently in the wrong position to make plays? You need to pay attention in practice. Every day. Failure lights the way to success, if we don’t dismiss the opportunity for growth. Failing spectacularly against other people is extremely powerful in that way. I’ve always thought of it as a blessing, and that’s something that can be taught. It’s not about telling a young athlete or a teammate that they sucked, and expecting them to dwell on the shame of it. It’s telling them exactly HOW they sucked, so they remember enough to prepare better for the next big test. But…

“The only person you should really be competing with is yourself. The key is to be a better person/athlete/whatever than you were— it’s always more about the process than the destination.”

I’ve heard that quote (or something very similar) from a lot of coaches and leaders I really respect. I see the value in it. To completely invest in the process of improvement, you need to continue step by step, whether or not you get external validation or the reward of the “win.” But here’s the thing: we know ourselves and the context of our lives so well. Without laser-like focus, we can forgive less effort in ourselves on a given day, or a missed training session. We might improve over time, but was it worthy improvement, really? It’s tough to tell when your only reference point is your own training log.

Now, getting your ass kicked: that’s a GREAT reference point! You don’t know the life story of your opponent or how they train, and it doesn’t matter: you got dominated. It’s an instant reminder every time you want to sandbag it in training, let your mind wander in practice, or otherwise miss an opportunity to improve. The next time you meet, what will be the result? When there is a next time, a next test, you don’t just improve, you improve as fast and as well as you possibly can. I applaud the people and the coaches who preach the benefits of this approach to improvement, especially in this unfortunate age of “everyone’s a winner.” No. There are losers.

That’s the great thing about a competitive game: it’s a definitive moment with a result. These can be hard to find in regular life, with the endless variables, complications, and other things beyond our control, with one thing flowing into another. We know that the right focus, practice, preparation, and learning from mistakes will often lead to success and fulfillment, but we rarely get definitive “wins.” Competition builds those habits, and in the miniature world of the game, can give us that win, and emphatically bestow the title of champion. When the United States defeated Japan in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, a reporter asked Carli Lloyd, fresh off her incredible hat trick and MVP honors, what it felt like.  She didn’t say anything about the actual title of World Champion, or how it was something wonderful that had happened to her. “I’ve been working my butt off my whole career for this moment,” was her reply. Raise that arm in triumph, champ. You earned it.

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