We were driving home from grade school one day having a discussion about the meaning of life (both kids will tell you of the madness of having two professors for parents). My daughter piped up, "well life is a journey to discover." My son hurrumped as only a ten year old can and proclaimed, "life is a game you play to win." I know, my wife and I were not planning on raising stereotypes, but there you have it.
Life is a game you play to win?
Simple enough: A life philosophy? A way of being in the world? A way to relate to problems?
In the world of sport and of athletic competition, the highest compliment that can be paid to a person is "he or she is a competitor." I guess that the competition in athletic competition gives it away.
Being a competitor pervades the language that describes, evaluates, demeans and praises athletics. Yet it is important to remember that being a competitor does not mean a person always wins. An athletic winner can compliment the opposing person or team who lost by saying, "they were great competitors." Being a competitor may be vital to succeeding and winning, but it exists as a separate ethical status in sports.
The reality of being a competitor lies at the moral heart of athletics and any defense of the moral worth of sports. But what does it mean? to be a competitor? Why is it morally worthy and respected even by the individuals who may win over a person. Is it a good way to live and approach life?
To compete requires a context and someone to compete against. One competes for a purpose. Without a goal to gain and someone who also seeks it, there is no competition.
In theories of evolution creatures compete to survive. They compete against other creatures seeking to survive. Sometimes the competition can be brutal and head to head since creatures seek to control the same resources of an area or herd. sometime competition can be brutal individuals compete as prey and predator or males compete for access to female Such competition can end in a zero sum game--one dead, one alive. One propagating, one slinking away.
Sometimes, however, individuals compete to find a right and secure niche, and successful competition can mean finding co-surviving niches or cooperative strategies to survive. To succeed in this environment the creature must develop their traits and skill and intelligence to thrive in their ecosystem, not necessarily dominate another creature.
The essence of the biological competitor lies in the incessant challenge posed to survive against the environmental challenges and the other competitors who seek similar goals. The moral worth of a successful competitor is clear; the individual survives. Interestingly in this world, competitors do not want to compete against the best unless they have to. Their risk assessment preference prefers the weaker and less likely to succeed--the unique human and athletic desire to push oneself and gain glory by competing against the best grows from human's capacity for self reflection and self comparison.
The moral worth of competition can emerge from its relationship to refine and develop the quality of a being. Being a competitor demonstrates its worth in how it contributes to the being's ability to survive and thrive.Competition hones a creature's skills and ability to thrive. It can drive a creature to develop its capabilities to their maximum extent and to find the right niche where these capabilities bring reward.
Being a competitor involves two possible obvious outcomes: to lose or win against the environment or fellow competitors. In the biological frame, to lose means to die, to win, means a creature lives another day, that is the reward, not dying, living another day for another set of possibilities.
Actually a third outcome exists. If a creature or species loses in the competition for resources, they do not necessarily die. They can move to another ecosystem. They can find different resources that permit them to survive by filling unoccupied niches or exploiting underutilized resources. They can accept a different and lower place in the herd. A real competitor can also be smart and use the "loss" to find another way to survive and thrive. They can also use the loss to get smarter, skilled or stronger.
Competing helps creatures and people grow. It can help them develop and get better or find the right niche for them by trying one area and moving to another. But what does being a competitor mean for a human being and an athlete.
At its center being a competitor involves an internal dialogue where the person sets goals and measures him or herself against their ability to achieve those goals. One can compete against oneself to expand skills, develop knowledge, refine technique and practice, reflect and learn. Being a competitor begins with the internal stance of competing against oneself and pushing and testing and developing one's skills.
This self dialogue introduces an often lost aspect of being a high performing competitor. Good competitors learn and adapt when they lose or face strong competition. But strong competitors also innovate. In professional and athletic competition, people use their mind to reframe issues. They discover new ideas and approaches and tactics. They invent new ways to deploy resources and even one's body or team strategy. So being a competitor involves not just endless refining one's skill and strength and bodily integration, but thinking and applying imagination and mind to the game and challenges before the person. This can range from innovation in training, mental preparation, nutrition as well as tactics and skill refinement. A good competitor pushes him or herself to get better both for the sake of their own excellence and of winning against competitors.
A competitor lies in an uneasy relationship to him or herself and to life. The relationship to self remains restless since personal identity can anchor in success as an athlete. Any strong competitor can link their sense of self worth to the extrinsic goal of winning, not just the intrinsic goals of meeting their own aspirations.
This relation to self involves a constant assessment of how good one's skills and intelligence. A competitor cannot ever be satisfied with him or herself. The challenges of the game or sport change. Younger, more talented and sometimes more innovative athletes enter the arena of competition. No safe harbors exist. To succeed and stay competitive in this arena requires immense personal focus and discipline and adaptability. It means every day tests whether one has the self-discipline and desire to perfect one's skills and push oneself to the limits to stay in the game.
This self awareness and discipline is why "she's a competitor" remains one of the highest compliments athletes can pay to fellow athletes or coaches can pay to their own or opposing athletes. It articulates the deepest level of respect that exists independent of whether the athlete wins or loses, it means they compete.
The competitor works to perfect and overcome deficiencies that are revealed in competition. Most athletes not only love to win, but they HATE to lose. In fact one of the saddest aspects of many competitors lies in the reality that he or she does not nearly enjoy the delight of winning and the sheer rush of being at your best; but rather feels only relief that they did not lose. The fear of losing and the pain of loss drives can reduce a competitor to a dreary driven and haunted life.
More than a few athletes can be described as "one of the most competitive people I know." What the person reveals is not just the drive to excel and win in athletics, but this carries over into every area of their life. I can be tiddly winks or RISK or making money or just goofing around over a video game. It does not matter, this type of competitor can be fun to have around, but to be honest can get pretty tiresome if they have to win or more to the point, just act out when they lose. Learning to be an accomplished competitor is only part of learning to be an accomplished human and friend.
Each loss can eat away at their self worth, but real competitors use it as a spur to get better. This quest to get better defines another moral aspect of a competitor and athlete's code--a competitor does not quit. What does that mean? To most athletes quitting takes on a moral overtone, to give up, to refuse to try any more. A quitter is the antithesis of a competitor.
This is not the same as a conscious decision that one cannot attain the level of excellence or cannot compete at the same level. This acknowledges truthful self assessment. It means individuals may leave the field and retire or they may go to another level of competition such as age related such as masters tournaments and levels where people can compete and excel and not give up but move beyond the need to win.
Competition possesses a darker side. First, it possesses its own demonic dynamic where competitors demonize the other competitors. Teams or individuals will compete not just to push themselves, not just to be the best and win but they supplement this motivation by projecting anger or hatred on the opponents. This anger and hatred motivate.
The demonization undermines the sportsmanship by pushing individuals to test the rules in ways designed to hurt or punish the other side, not just win within the rules. Too many coaches preach to their teams that members need to dislike or hate their opponents. This dehumanizing lessens the nobility and strength of the competitor as a model of emulation. It distorts the satisfaction of winning into a sharp lust for dominating rather than sheer appreciation of winning and being the best that a person or team can be at that moment.
Second, darkness can shape how competition pushes individuals to get better. A competitor learns from mistakes. When they lose or get bested, they think about why they lost, work on the weaknesses or perfect their strengths, and they work to get better. But two dangers sneak in here. In the first the competitor sacrifices their self worth and identity to the external trophy of winning, to their need to beat the other. Their worth and success is in some ways diminished because they triumph not in their excellence but in their dominance that depends upon the endless king of the mountain game. When they do lose, they lose not just the game, but they feel less as a person. Or as my ten year old volleyball players used to do, they blame it on the other team, the coach, anyone but themselves because it hurts too much.
Of course my young male volleyball players missed another vital point. Evolutionary biology demonstrates that the best cooperators become the best competitors. Humans succeed as a species not because of their immense strength, talent or even intelligence. They succeed because of their capacity to develop complex successful teams that succeed. The same is true of sports. Talent and skill will often fall before talent and skill melded into a coherent team philosophy and commitment. True competitors understand that successful competition requires a team culture.
Another facet needs to be remembered. A competitor competes to the end of the trial. This is why winners will compliment the vanquished. The competitor gives it all their effort and skill even when he or she is losing. Even when he or she or the team falls so far behind, no chance exists to overcome the deficit. The athlete keeps fighting and competing. This drive and way of being honors the game they play, honors their opponents but above all honors their own integrity. The person wins that internal dialogue that even when the extrinsic goal eludes them, the intrinsic goals exist and the person remains true to their self, their goals and their teammates.
The great competitors revel in their wins, but they revel as much in their excellence, in the sheer joy and fun and success where they and their teammates exhibit utter mastery that plays out as success and victory. They don't need domination but they celebrate mastery.