I’ve pret­ty much always not been good at sports. This holds true despite the fact that I have a huge NCAA Cham­pi­onship ring that I’m aller­gic to wear­ing. In Lit­tle League I played left field and chased but­ter­flies out of bore­dom. I had no idea about the cor­rect tim­ing to hit the ball. Ele­men­tary bas­ket­ball was sim­i­lar. Instead of steal­ing the ball, I asked if I could please have it. I was the tall kid, but had no hops, and no aggres­sive streak. I was okay at golf, but out­grew my clubs. In Junior High and High School I ran. I was the slow guy.

In col­lege I walked on to the fenc­ing team, worked my ass off, and most­ly due to the ben­e­fits of hav­ing team­mates of world class, Olympic cal­iber, was good enough to beat those oppo­nents who didn’t have the oppor­tu­ni­ties and access that I had.

I’ve always con­sid­ered myself more coop­er­a­tive than com­pet­i­tive. I still am, but I’ve come to a dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing about what it means to be com­pet­i­tive. I used to think being com­pet­i­tive meant get­ting real­ly upset at los­ing; want­i­ng to win so bad­ly that los­ing is anath­e­ma. I think I’ve real­ized where I (and oth­er folks) have gone wrong. Being com­pet­i­tive can also mean rev­el­ing in the com­pe­ti­tion, no mat­ter what the out­come. Sounds like a ratio­nal­iza­tion from a guy who’s used to los­ing, right?

What keeps me in the game then, if I’m such a los­er? It’s the com­pe­ti­tion, the striv­ing, the test­ing, stu­pid! I enjoy it. Try­ing to win does not mean hav­ing to win. The mind­set is sort of zen with a low­er-case z. Would you rather be com­pet­i­tive as a test of your own abil­i­ty or that of your team’s, or be com­pet­i­tive because you enjoy beat­ing your oppo­nent? If the lat­ter, why is beat­ing your oppo­nent so impor­tant? Answer that ques­tion and you’ll know what fuels your com­pet­i­tive streak.

I’ve pret­ty much always been good at trash talk. I’m mouthy. I’ve been known to play games with my own goals in mind. I used to play chess by try­ing to see how many pieces I could take before los­ing. I used to have a Mag­ic: The Gath­er­ing deck which could pret­ty much not ever win, but would make the process of win­ning as absolute­ly mis­er­able and drawn out for my oppo­nent as pos­si­ble. The sadis­tic psy­chol­o­gy of com­pe­ti­tion lives in this kind of trash talk, and asym­met­ri­cal strate­gies. But like the two types of com­pet­i­tive­ness I’ve cre­at­ed, there’s anoth­er type of trash talk, too; sports­man­ship.


Tak­ing the high road is always a win. My friend Chas is a huge Pitt fan. Being a Domer myself, we’ve got an under­stand­able rival­ry. Chas loves to talk smack. I’ve not talked to him in a few years, but it used to dri­ve him absolute­ly crazy that I wouldn’t rise to his bait, and would instead com­pli­ment Pitt whether they won or lost. Gra­cious­ness and class can be just as effec­tive at unset­tling your oppo­nent as any­thing else.

I guess this boils down to the fol­low­ing: The stereo­typ­i­cal com­pet­i­tive streak, and the accom­pa­ny­ing trash talk & oth­er behav­iors seem to reflect such a strong need to win, there’s got to be some lack dri­ving it. For folks who just rejoice in sport, how­ev­er, win­ning and trash-talk­ing aren’t nec­es­sary (although both are quite fun in dif­fer­ent ways), just being in a posi­tion to strive, and hav­ing the abil­i­ty to do so is enough. At the same time, that zen-with-a-small-z state of mind can be just as effec­tive a tac­tic as telling your oppo­nent that you’re sleep­ing with his girl­friend.