Last weekend I got to be back at a track meet coaching for the first time in just short of a year. While some of our athletes got the opportunity to compete in 2020 and early 2021, this was the first time I was able to join any of them in that competitive arena. It was fun, it was invigorating, it was a little different, it was a lot familiar. As I watched this competition unfold, observing both our athletes and others, I was struck by how different the experience seemed for various athletes. Before their races I could see the ones who had become overwhelmed by fear, and conversely those who’s nervous energy had a positive look to it, an eager look. During the races I could see the ones who disengaged at the onset of adversity, and those who chose to charge into it. Afterwards I saw the tears and frustration and beaten down posture of some, while others wore smiles on top of tall shoulders with satisfaction beaming through. I should note though that even for those who walked away satisfied, the effort was hard. All of it was hard. Some lay exhausted on the ground, some vomited, most sat staring blankly for at least a few minutes waiting for their body to start the return to homeostasis. I saw some that were obviously asking themselves why afterwards, like the young athlete sitting off to the side crying alone, and that lead me into this reflection…….why do we compete?
This reflection didn’t take me down the road of why each individual might compete. I examined that in an earlier post on purpose if you want to check out the value of a strong why. I was also not examining what specific external motivators might be at play like qualifying for this, meeting that contract obligation, etc. I was taking more the macro view, reflecting on why we all compete. What draws humans into competition in general? Why do we seek this, want this, maybe even need this?
The first thing that came to mind was the fight or flight response. I think most people are quite familiar with this concept, but it is one of the highest states of arousal humans can experience. Put in certain situations our sympathetic nervous system brings our body to a heightened state where we quite literally decide to flee or fight. There is a challenge so daunting that momentarily our body is unsure of whether we should run away or charge forward. The way this feels to us is beyond what most substances or emotions can provide. In our origin on this earth, as hunter-gatherers, we were constantly put in these situations. Human vs. the elements, human vs. other predators, human vs. terrain……all these were constant. Our technological advancements have removed us from regular interaction with fight or flight. Most of us choose it now. We choose to try out for the basketball team, we choose to stand up and make that speech, we choose to go to that interview, we choose to see if we can traverse that ridge, and we choose to step on that starting line. Do we choose these things for external motivators or strong specific whys? Sure, but we also choose them because it is in our very nature as humans to seek things that bring us to the brink of, or right into, the fight or flight response.
The second thing I thought of when reflecting on why we are drawn to competition was presence. I am going to try to avoid going full ‘grumpy old man’ here, but our world is making it harder and harder to be present. We can digest information and experiences second hand at any time in any place. We are constantly hearing what others think and say about us and it drives us into a state of self-analysis paralysis. We have endless entertainment options to remove us from our current reality, and even plenty of prescription or non-prescription substances that do the same. It is now so much easier for all of us to be somewhere else than be present in our own here and now. Competition is a great combatant of all that. When we compete, we place ourselves in an arena that demands the here and now. Where we rely on ourselves in the present to meet challenge, to use our whole selves to surmount adversity and achieve what we seek.
The third and final concept that came to mind in this reflection on competition was our need to feel connected. There is some cross-over here with presence, but some differences too. There are two elements of connection that are vital to all of us that competition brings out. One is the connection to our true selves, to our bodies and to our minds. Here is where the crossover with presence occurs. All this stimulus we digest daily removes us from our present place but also removes us from ourselves. We become disconnected from these two incredible gifts we possess, our intellect and our physical capabilities. Staring down a technical ridge traverse, putting your foot to the start line, accepting the ball from an official for a free throw or corner kick, or charging forward versus an opponent will afford you an opportunity to truly connect to every fiber of your physical and intellectual self.
Another element of connection competition brings out is connection to others. This is obvious in team endeavors. Most of us can easily recall bonds with teammates forged through accepting challenge together. Teammates you prepared with, faced challenge with, came to rely on, and came to better understand. But how about connection with our opponents? I think this is massively overlooked. There is little as beautiful as athletes who compete head-to-head with intense ferocity and then embrace afterwards sharing respect for one another. Why is this? Because they know first-hand the challenges that other human just had to accept and be willing to take on. Those competitors have quite literally walked the same steps, and hence they understand one another on a completely different level.
What about connection with our loved ones from our competitive endeavors? Personal anecdote here, I am extraordinarily fortunate to have had the same best friend since the first grade. Growing up through grade school and junior high basketball was the primary pursuit for both of us. We played on teams together, and we played non-stop in each other’s driveways for years. As we got into high school my best friend continued to excel with basketball and like many runners, my basketball career was headed for a less notable finish. I found other sports, first football and then track. Our friendship was founded on a few very firm cornerstones, but competition was certainly one of them. We lost sharing that element directly at a certain point. However, we still shared in each other’s competitive efforts to the point that it deepened our friendship further.
I can recall his final basketball game as a high school athlete, a disappointing loss to end a disappointing season. After that game I went straight to his house, I was there before he was. His parents knew I would be there, he knew I would be there. We stayed up nearly the entire night talking, letting him process the end of his high school basketball life that he had put so much into. A few months later, as I was trying to win a state championship on the track and solidify a collegiate athletic opportunity, he was my biggest fan. My final state meet race was disappointing too. I fell woefully out of position on lap one in the 800m final and though I ran a courageous and committed second lap I ended up short of my goal. My best friend was there watching. He called me shortly after I got home and told me how inspired he was by my effort, how proud he was of me, he was in tears. Though the closest we get to competing together today is taking on a tough climb while hunting or hiking into an alpine lake, there is no question the strength of our bond is due in part to a deeper understanding of each other through the competitive endeavors of our youth.
Embrace what lies deeper for all of us in competition. External motivators are fine, sound whys are even better. But let’s also value competition for what it provides all of us in it’s essence, a link to our primal fight or flight response, true presence that is increasingly hard to find, and most notably real true connection to ourselves and our fellow humans. What if reframed things to think of competition as an opportunity for these things? Do you want to experience the buzz of real fight or flight, but in a safe setting? Are you seeking greater presence? Do you want to be more connected to your true self and to others? Great, go compete at something and you will have a chance to experience all those things!