The Heat of Competition

It hurts worse to lose than it feels good to win.
Joe Garagiola, baseball broadcaster.

I don’t recall the teams involved but I remember what the announcer, Joe Garagiola, said when the TV camera switched from the World Series winners in wild celebration to the losing team in stunned grief. His sympathetic words (quoted above) struck me as profoundly true. Decades later, it occurs to me that it does not have to be true.

I wasted a lot of youthful passion hating to lose. No, it’s worse than that. Even if my team won, I would stew painfully over a missed lay-up or a dropped ball. I once broke my hand hitting a wall after blowing a lay-up. Instead of just enjoying occasional ping pong games in the student center as a college freshman, I focused on rising to the top of a list I carried in my head of the top-rated players in school. I wore a genuine smile most everywhere and was mild-mannered, except on a field of competition.

The Merits of Competition:

Competition can lead to higher levels of excellence in art, business, education, entertainment, politics, sports and more. A vibrant economy flourishes with competition. It keeps prices down and performance up in a free market. Competition for customers can foster greater service priorities and a richer “may I help you” spirit in a mutually constructive sales context.

The value of teamwork can be learned in various arenas of competition. Teammates compete for certain positions in sports. In an orchestra, members compete for the “first chair.” Workers compete for promotions. Organizations thrive as they blend healthy competition with cooperation. Those who sustain losses can learn essential lessons about adjusting to find other ways to contribute to the group’s goals. The golden rule applies here. Because I would not want a competitor to lie down and let me get a position or chair, I can engage in fair competition in earnest. However, when they do win, I must celebrate the result and adapt my ambitions to a higher mission.

The Pitfalls of Competition:

A competitive spirit can harm a marriage, cripple a church, mar a friendship and eat up your peace of mind. Add pride and it can be a stench in God’s nostrils. The minute a competitive spirit takes on a “win at any cost” nature, it becomes poison to all parties. When the qualities of love, honesty, integrity and good will are compromised for competitive gain, evil grows. When people cheat to win, they lose in the wider arena of life. So do their victims.

In a socialist economy, instead of competing with each other on equal ground, people compete to be perceived by a central board as worthy of entitlements, benefits and rewards. Competition continues but it loses its power to foster excellence.

Many of the “one another” passages in the Bible serve to challenge our competitive spirit. Paul wrote; “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4). To illustrate this spirit, Paul pointed to the mind of Christ as our example.

Selfish ambition is a dangerous drug. However, the well-known danger of drugs has a flip side. When used carefully and prudently, the right drug in the right measure, can lead to healing. Wisdom and discipline are crucial for competition to be healthy.

A Class Act:

John Wooden, the most successful coach in NCAA basketball history, cared more about character development and love than winning games. He wanted players who put the good of the team before personal interest. He told them, “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.”

John Wooden (1910 – 2010)

Because scoreboards cannot measure character or integrity, Wooden set his aim higher than the scoreboard. In his book, They Call Me Coach (2003), Wooden defined success as “a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” He added: “I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of a life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior.”

Lessons Learned:

A narrow perspective gave me a sharp focus on rating lists and a short fuse over missed lay-ups. A larger perspective began to grow as I placed faith in the hands of the Savior: Jesus Christ. No one can look at His life and death and come away advocating a life of selfish ambition or winning at any cost. His sacrifice on the cross (followed by his resurrection) paid my sin-debt and defined love in much bigger proportions than personal interest. Real love looks far beyond ourselves to the good of others. This message put to practice is what makes a church a lighthouse in a lost an lonely world. I think it was my late friend M. Norvell Young who said, “There is no competition between lighthouses.”

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