Competition: A Few Positive And Not So Positive Aspects of Competition for Motivational Purposes

Over the course of thirty years, I have competed in hundreds of road races, duathlons and triathlons, including dozens of national world championship events. The competition at most of these events is intense. Usually, only three people in each five-year male and female age group win prizes (gold, silver and bronze, just like in the Olympics). The rest, hopefully, have a good time, don't get hurt and away feeling good about the experience. But, it is well-known that not everyone goes away happy, in fact, the vast majority of people do not even enter competitions, for many different reasons. One might be bad experiences with the whole idea of competing. How do you feel about competition? Do you have enough of it in your life, or way too much? Do you welcome or avoid it? Do you think competition is overemphasized in our schools and work settings? What about our national focus on spectator sports - do you sometimes think these competitions are taken too seriously?

Runners - competition

The proper place of competition in the context of a healthy life is a much-debated topic in mental health circles; as far as I can tell, there is little consensus. As a lifelong athlete, I enjoy competition but I recognize there's a price to pay, that competition has a dark side. Decades ago, I started thinking about these kinds of questions, perhaps a bit more than my fellow athletes who all seem committed to the unbounded joys and benefits of competition. Then I came across the tale of "The Dodo and the Caucus Race" in Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland." In the third chapter of Alice, all the characters, after getting thoroughly soaked, have a discussion about the best way to dry off. The dodo says, "The best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus race." He then lays out a circular track and lines everyone up at random starting places. There was no`One, two, three, and away!' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half and hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out, 'The race is over!' The participants were puzzled and asked, 'But who has won?' This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it stood for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, 'Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'

That's how it is today with kids races. Scheduled just before the start or shortly after the completion of triathlons and road races wherein adults compete - without expectation of any medals or prizes save for a few top finishers, all finishers get medals at the kiddie races. Maybe we should organize adult races more along these lines. I say that, but I don't mean it, believe it or think it's a good idea, nor would I want anything to do with a race wherein all must have prizes. On the other hand, I say, let's have Caucus races in schools, workplaces and throughout society. There can always be optional chances for those of us who enjoy harmless competitions to play our games and, on occasions, to feel swift and strong, and sometimes brave and smart, at least for the moment, though we really know better. But there is much to be said for the approach demonstrated by Lewis Carroll's wise dodo: No judgments of superiority or inferiority among participants; no winners or losers and cooperation with ends attained and prizes for all.

Trophies - competition

So, I am of two minds: prizes for all, but not in selected events where awards go only to the swift and fortunate. Some achievements (examples might include playing the piano, competing in triathlons and hitting home runs) are done better by some than others and deserve acknowledgment and reward. However, on matters pertaining to the intrinsic and ultimate worth of a human life, or the ability to live in accord with known precepts for REAL wellness, the judge of the caucus race appears to be the wisest of men.

And yet, there are many complications associated with competition that can be acknowledged. Many familiar with my racing career ask how I deal with the downside, including but not limited to anxieties common to competition. I've been asked about how to deal with defeat, about worries of making mistakes or not being good enough or getting hurt and so on.

The fact is that there truly is little room at the top. Does competition really fit with REAL wellness? How about that focus on happiness, reason and quality of life? Also, what about the others involved in the competitions? If I win, does that not by definition mean others lose? If I have more of something (e.g., trophies, medals, ribbons and the adoration of the crowds, for instance!), is there not less of such for everyone else? Is that fair, or nice or a situation we want to encourage? Isn't competition a zero sum game? How can it be healthy to focus on beating everyone?

The critics do make good points. It would be nice to live in an ideal world where everyone gets the same of everything and all are equal. But, we are not all alike, and what floats one boat will sink another.

The questions posed and others like them are competition issues with which most of us have had to deal. We are all shaped by competitions of varied kinds over the years. In the first part of life if not continuing as adults, we often did not get to choose the competitions in which we found ourselves. The competitions were thrust upon us! Think of the early years of school, and competitions for grades, honors and so on. Our attitudes toward those competitions have surely shaped some aspects of our personalities and values. It should not surprise us when people react to competition differently one from another. How clear are you about your own attitudes toward competition?

At this point, we might define what exactly we view as competition? The dictionary (Webster's 9th) offer this definition: "The active demand by two or more organisms for some environmental resource in short supply." It could be a yellow jersey, an oval office in Washington, the vote of a Congressperson, finding an affordable home in a desirable area, winning Pulitzer Prizes for best Ezine essays - whatever. For me, competitions most often take the form of athletic pursuits, as in weekend age group rivalries. If the question is phrased in this manner - "Is competition a good thing for you, Don,?" the answer is easy: Yes, very much so.

The reason competition is such a positive experience for me is that I try to usually succeed in making competitive events a no lose proposition. More important, with a little bit of mental rehearsal and physical practice, you can do the same. Here's how. If I win, I'm happy. Naturally. If not, however, I can win anyway, but in different ways. It's all how you choose to think of competition and the winning/losing part. If I can put this desire to creatively interpret winning into my brain and emotions, it works well. This thinking guarantees a winning experience of one kind or another. The trick to enjoying competition is to have more than one way to win. For instance, if I am not the first across the line, which has occurred more often than I like this year (though second is not so bad if the times are fast enough), I make a point not to mope or get down and out about it. More often than not, Lance Armstrong finishes in the middle of the peloton (the pack of riders), and everyone knows that Babe Ruth struck out more often than he hit homers. There are other gains from participating in the game, such as the thrill of the race, the camaraderie and the excitement of it all. I focus on the fact that I have worked hard (athletes always push beyond the pale in a race in a manner not possible in training) and thus gain added fitness. If I have done my best, and I almost always give nothing less, there is no basis for despair or disappointment at not being first.

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An inspirational 27-minute film about fitness and competition called "Coping With Life on the Run" was produced and narrated by the late running guru George Sheehan in 1977. It was a big hit - I loved it and found much that was inspirational, including the soundtrack. The film depicts runners of all ages and physical abilities excelling in competitions in their own fashion, and getting emotionally high on a feeling of having performed in outstanding ways. One scene shows a man in a wheelchair coming through the finish line, doing wheelies. Another participant in the run is on a bridge during the race, alone, because the rest of the competitors have long since crossed the finish line. As he nears the camera, it is apparent that he is running with one leg and a prosthetic limb. To this athlete, the competition has great meaning. His goal is to finish, which he does in the throes of triumphant exhilaration. Most of the other competitors, particularly in the middle and back of the pack, seem to experience similar thrills, exuberance and connectedness. While they don't win in a formal way, they prevail in terms of personal goals and individual pleasures. This is exemplary of what competition offers, at its best. It motivates people to excel. It promotes self-esteem! It gives meaning. I can almost hear Robert Green Ingersoll describing the passengers on a metaphorical train of life, all doomed, having a grand time, despite knowing the common fate that awaits them all - "I tell you, we have got a good deal of pluck."

I could go on about the benefits of competition but I think you get the idea. The fears associated with it, the bad feelings it arouses in some, are more related to the way they respond to it before, during and/or especially after the fact - and those outcomes are subject to change, if such is desired.

Competition is not always a good thing for everyone. Some should reform their attitudes about it or just avoid it. Competition is best if not viewed as a big deal with permanent winners and losers. A healthy perspective is simply to be part of something special, a step up on a stage worthy of your time and a venue suited to your talent. Make winning inevitable by the way you choose to view the process. Make it a game broad enough to enable you to win your division. When people ask what division I'm in, I say, "The master male category for people over six feet three inches and 170 pounds who are right-handed with blue eyes, produce a wellness report, host a wellness website, live in Florida and have a strange sense of humor." If you get yourself in the right division, you can win, too - and then you will LOVE competition. As Ashleigh Brilliant observed in one of his marvelous 17-word epigram Potshots, "To be the best, be the only one in your group."

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Sheehan wrote that the purist form of competition comes from attempting to be the best you can be. Competition is the road to excellence..."Each one of us must be a hero. We are here to lead a heroic life...the heroic act, the courageous act, is its own reward." (Personal Best, Rodale, Emmaus, PA. 1989, pp. 7 and 8.) All the best. Be well.


Author:  Donald Ardell is publisher of the ARDELL WELLNESS REPORT - an electronic newsletter devoted to weekly commentaries on current issues that affect personal and social well-being from a quality of life perspective. The emphasis is on REAL wellness. REAL stands for the key issues embraced and advanced in Don's philosophy, namely, Reason, Exuberance, Athleticism and Liberty. Sample copy of latest edition by request. If you like it, you can sign up - the price is right - free.