Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Sportsmanship

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.

What?

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.