Today in athletics, “in your face” attitude and winning at any cost are becoming more and more prevalent. We see this attitude displayed by players as they trash talk opponents, in coaches who threaten players for not “wanting it badly enough,” and in fans as they boo opponents and officials, in some cases before the contests even begin. In the heat of the moment many of us, as well, have lost perspective now and then, but it is not the purpose of this piece to dwell on the negatives of sport. However, those negative aspects of competition have many people questioning sport today. The concept of “in your face” competition seems to be gaining adherents from the professional level right down to grade school and even sandlot pick up games. In an era in which the flamboyant not only grabs our attention but also guides our actions, how do we teach young people that competition can be positive force in their lives?
First, competition must be defined in terms other than solely winning and losing. There is nothing wrong with having a winner of a contest and, therefore, also a loser. Much can be learned from both winning and losing, and good coaches as well as perceptive parents use each as teachable moments. Winning at sport goes beyond putting more points on a scoreboard. Wining has as much or more to do with participating at a level that creates an opportunity for one to have success. George Sheehan said this well when he wrote, “There is nothing more certain than the defeat of a man who gives up–and…the victory of one who will not.”
Winning is an inescapable part of competition but it is not the sole reason for competing. There are runners on our high school cross country team who will never win a race, some will never qualify for the state meet, yet they run. They work hard each day at practice, run through snow, ice, rain, and heat in the off-season just so they can compete. Why? They understand competition in a way explained well by one of the main characters in the movie Dead Poet’s Society, “I view competition as an opportunity for other humans to push us to excel.”
These two quotations on competition bring it all together. If I am to be challenged to excel, I must prepare myself. My practice must be of a level that allows me to excel, not just try hard. I will respect those around me who are working toward that same goal and I will respect my opponent because he is the one pushing me to excel (and conversely, I him). By striving to excel in both preparation and the contest, I have an opportunity to come out on top in the competition. Should I fail in that, I have still been pushed to work up to my greatest potential.
Second, as a coach or parent, recognize for whom the competition exists. Coaches come and go but the team goes on with or without them. Coaches teach skills and attitudes so youth can excel; this means creating opportunities for kids to excel. The athlete with the least amount of athletic talent deserves as much attention from the coach as the athlete with the greatest amount of talent. The focus may not be on the same areas and it may not take the same amount of time, but each has different needs that must be met to help him excel at his level of ability. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone gets to play an equal amount every game. For a player to excel, he has to be given opportunities to do just that. It is questionable how much good is done by placing a player in a situation where he will be out of his depth, maybe even to the point of humiliation. Likewise, it does little but humiliate a player to be put into the contest as a token substitute for the last one or two minutes of the contest. To assist young people in developing a positive sense of competition, a coach needs to know his players so he can create or be aware of opportunities that will push his players to excel. He needs to create a schedule for the athletes, not for the coach’s or school’s ego.
Finally, recognize that the activity in which you engage is, after all, a game. Even though one may make a strong case for sport preparing people to face life, athletics is not life. Young people have concerns over life issues that happen off the field of play. Don’t allow “commitment to the team” trivialize their real life concerns. Teach them that we discipline ourselves to compete in sport as a tool for life. When real life happens in the middle of a season, your coaching is put the test. Will your athletes meet life’s challenges with a sense of pessimism and give up, or with a sense of optimism and confront each challenge with a sense of competing to excel?
A positive understanding of competition can keep us going, meeting the challenges of life. George Sheehan, quoted earlier, was a life-long runner and a writer for Runner’s World magazine. He was diagnosed with a cancer that would ultimately claim his life. When he first got the news, he dropped out of life. However, Sheehan, through his running, had learned about positive competition and excelling, and he began writing and running again before he died. In his last column, he addressed the idea of competing not only in the game, or in his case the race, but also in preparation for the race. Early in his column, he penned the statement already quoted about not giving up. But he also talked about continuing to strive for excellence:
“Excellence is not something obtained and put in a trophy case… It is a momentary phenomenon, a rare conjunction of body, mind and spirit at one’s peak. Should I come to that peak, I cannot stay there…I must start each day at the bottom and work back up to the top, and then beyond.”
Competition, guided properly, can be an enormous resource for our young people. Consider these sentiments quoted here; they are worthy advice for anyone, let alone those involved in athletic competition. Positive competition will encourage young people to push on and to strive for excellence, not a bad training technique for young Christians.
Edmund Staude serves as an English and history teacher and head coach of the cross country team for Lutheran High St. Charles. Edmund has also coached basketball and works with Lutheran High’s drama program.