How can competition bring out the absolute worst in some and the best in others? One head butts for a red card. The other heads it in for a winner. One crumples untouched to draw the foul. The other stands his ground in spite of the mugging. One bites and… What’s going on?
There’s no denying that ultimate competition, winner take all, shows us our real selves. Not only the outside, cultivated in years of training, but the inside, shaped by our upbringing, our culture, our mentoring and our mindset. It’s where both nature and nurture are in full view, stripped of pretense for the world to see. Enter the contest, and reality takes center stage.
Some choose not to enter. “I’m not competitive,” they’ll say. They announce this from the start so you won’t expect much from them and will excuse their novice play. Occasionally, it’s a ruse and they come out with guns blazing, but usually it’s insecurity rather than an ineptitude that holds them back. They’re afraid of trying hard and failing. It’s easier to say, “Let’s just play for fun,” “No need to keep score,” “Just have a friendly game.” With no winner, there will be no loser, and everyone will be happy. Yeah, if you’re happy with average.
But that is so un-American. We are a nation defined by competition. Go hard or go home. Live free or die. Land of the free, home of the brave. We don’t step back from competition, we step up. And when I do, like it or not, the real me takes center stage. Nature and nurture parade out to midfield. And this is where things get messy. Since nature, the physical preparation, is done for now, nurture takes over. Sometimes it ain’t pretty.
Two problem children drift into full view: the conflicted kid and the insecure kid.
Some kids, clearly, are operating in the “I’m doing this because I have to zone. She competes at soccer because it’s what she’s done since kindergarten. Her parents love to come watch. She couldn’t possibly let them down, so she keeps playing. Middle school, high school, maybe even a college scholarship. But honestly, there are 100 other things she’d rather be doing, and it shows. The subliminal self doesn’t lie. It talks to itself a lot, though, because it’s a quiet voice. Competition makes us face the truth, if we listen.
Then there is the kid who knows “I know I am the best” because he’s heard it his whole life. He may spark briefly, because he is talented. His skills and speed and athleticism have always come through, but now he’s met his match: an opponent who gives him a run for his money. Is he really that good? He wonders as he gets beaten again and again. To preserve his self image he deflects responsibility – ref made a bad call, other guy cheated, sun was in my eyes. Or he uses his imagination to preserve his place at the top. He cheats, lies, or bites. Competition eases our grip, if we’re held accountable.
But when we see misbehavior, at home and abroad, we blame competition. Surely, it causes people to act like this. It stunts their development, beats them down, injures. As if we can’t help ourselves.
I disagree. I believe competition, particularly ultimate competition, lifts us up. It can get ugly because we can be ugly. Sometimes we bite. In fact, it may be the very place we are forced to see ourselves clearly. When the lights come on, there’s not much that goes unexposed.
So who do we think we are, going up against the soccer powerhouses of the world? The competition itself says, let’s find out. What are you made of, not just on the outside, but on the inside? It doesn’t matter what the odds- makers say. Don’t inflate that opinion of yourselves; it’s your enemy. But so, too, is the slightest insecurity.
We will keep score. There will be a winner. Be ready.
That’s when belief takes over. Not a dream, but a reality. Believe “I am the best,” and today, I am going to play that way. I will play by the rules. I will not blame my opponent for my circumstances. I will take responsibility for everything that goes on out there. I will win. Or I will die trying. That’s who I am.
The world is looking for a hero. Hey, anyone can be a celebrity. We can all wash up and make it look good at the microphone after the game. But that person is only who we want to be. The real me, nature + nurture + family + country + fortune, is out there on the field. Stripped of every pretense by the game itself. It shows us both the heroes and the villains.
We love a good guy and a bad guy in a fight to the death. It’s the oldest story ever told. We’ve got front row seats and instant replay, game by game. One winner, one Cup, and the whole world watching. There’s only one way to compete. You believe.