Some of you could care less (or not care less) about this. I’ve written some other things that you may find more spiritually edifying.
As I was pondering writing about this, I realized now is the moment to dig into it: when I’m in the throes of a recent-yet-not-devastating defeat. I’ve written on depression when I’m depressed. It comes out very differently than when I’m discussing it dispassionately on one of my sunny days. Not that I’m planning on screaming and cursing here. I just know I’ll be able to express it most clearly when I’m feeling it strongly.
I’ve already done a whole series on competition from more of a pastoral/character-building perspective. I truly believe that stuff. This is slightly different, hopefully complementary. This doesn’t cancel any of that out, but this is an attempt at full-scale honesty. Please do not answer my honesty with cliches.
First, and most importantly, I will not “go gentle into that good night.” I am a fifty-year-old ultimate player who plays against much younger and more athletic players and I hold my own. Sometimes better than that. It takes a ton more work and effort than it did when I was younger. The desire to excel, and to win, motivates me to keep the conditioning, flexibility, and focus required to keep playing.
A friend around my age asked recently, “How do you keep that fire up all the time?” I quoted Bruce Banner in the first Avengers movie: “My secret is…I’m always angry.” I’m not always angry, but I am raging “against the dying of the light.” That’s why the fire is always burning. I’m sure there are those who can keep playing hard as they get older and not care about winning or losing at all. Wanting to win helps keep me playing and playing helps keep me sane.
I am the underdog.* A tremendous friend pointed out to me once that I always see myself in that role playing sports, whether or not it’s accurate to the situation. It means that I always feel I have to prove myself. I’m grateful for his insight. It’s helped me understand what drives me.
I know some of this comes from not having been as successful in sports as I hoped to be growing up. In some sense, I’ve never gotten over failing to be a starter on the basketball team in high school. I don’t mean in the Napoleon Dynamite Uncle Rico sense.** I mean in the “I still have to prove myself as an athlete in what I’m doing now” sense.
I can step back and see that’s silly. High school is so many lifetimes ago for me now. Today I told my high school teammates that the only reason I can respect them is that I’ve forgotten what an idiot I was in high school. But it’s one of those deep, multi-layered, tied-up-with-my-identity things, wanting to earn the respect of the people against whom I’m competing. I’d have to quit all competitive sports entirely to make that “go away”…and then it would pop up in other, less helpful areas of my life. Better to vent it on the ultimate field, having fun with others who also need to vent.
I’m massively less competitive than I used to be. I used to have to win at anything I played and would get truly angry (mostly at myself) if I didn’t. I don’t miss that and I’m glad I’ve outgrown that. I would say Jesus changed that in my life, largely through the good influence of Kim. This might make you laugh, but even so, I worry a little that I am mellowing. What if the fire goes out?
To give an example of how I’ve found more balance, I can now actually decide between a competition which I consider important to try to win and one which does not matter. I know. Wow, right? If you aren’t competitive, that might sound…a little late in developing for me. Whereas if you are, that might make you question whether I still qualify as “competitive.”
I’ve said, as both a captain and as a coach, “We’re here to have fun…and winning is more fun.” For me, it is, certainly in ultimate. Playing together as a team, working together to overcome the challenge presented by the other team, and experiencing that success collectively is more satisfying. Having said that, I would rather lose well than win badly, i.e. I’d rather lose having played our hardest and experience that self-respect than cut corners or bend rules to win and experience that self-queasiness. In my view, winning fairly is the only winning that counts.
Losing, it follows, is less fun. Not “no fun.” Nearly all the time, I prefer to play even if I lose than not to play at all. These days, I’m increasingly grateful that I still can play, period. I have also had losses that felt so crushing to me, that took me so long to let go, I might have preferred, in hindsight, not to have played. My wife would call that “taking this too seriously.” (I can hear her say this in my head as I’m typing.) I’m not saying she’s wrong. As advertised, this is the deal with me.
In a given game of any sport, you could have played better (perfect game in bowling might be the exception, perfect game in baseball would be pretty darned satisfying but, ironically, might still leave room to improve). Growing as an athlete means learning from these mistakes–there are some strange parallels with life here–and seeking to correct and overcome them next time. You can do that whether you win or lose. However, for me that self-critique after a loss has sometimes crossed the line into something more closely resembling self-flagellation. Unfortunately, my defense against that has sometimes been anger. Here again, I’m getting better. It’s a slow process.
Winning, in contrast, gives me some emotional boost that I can best describe as a high. It does this almost always, and the closer and more hard fought the game, the bigger that boost. The best highs are the true underdog-overcoming-big-odds victories. After those, satisfaction moves closer to something resembling euphoria. As someone who deals with depression on an ongoing basis, these little bursts of euphoria are treasures. I’ve wondered before if some people feel this good normally, in daily life. I don’t. I consciously try to live in the moment, love people and give them my attention, and be present in my life. I love and follow Jesus. But only in these euphoric states, or other mountain-top experiences, do I get a full break from the heaviness that I live with.
That’s me. It isn’t always easy. Exercise feels good and my body (almost) always thanks me for working out hard, whether hiking with the dogs, doing power yoga, or running up and down the ultimate field. But what I’m describing isn’t an automatic by-product of exercise for me. I can hike in a beautiful place and, sometimes, still be stuck in my head. Losing is good exercise, but hardly ecstatic.
No, having others let me win is not the same as winning; it’s actually worse than losing well because it feels disrespectful. That answers the unasked question, “Aren’t you afraid by sharing this people might start letting you win?” Plus, most of the people I play with are competitive like me. That’s also part of what makes the competition fun. We agree to try our hardest and see how it comes out.
Last point: having said all that, the outcome of my games is secondary to the relationships I build. I am wired relationally, anyway, but Kim really brought that lesson home for me. The people are more important. I play to encourage and build up others, to love them in the context of sports. I’m good at this and people feel it, at least those who can receive what I have to give (I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. Who is?). Therefore, after a loss like today’s, I can declare, publicly, “Losing sucks” and still love the time I got to play ultimate with my teammates in Nicaragua (whom I’ve missed terribly) and be happy for and proud of the Nicaraguan team who defeated us, many of whom I’ve worked with closely and seen improve dramatically.
I’m a blessed man still to be doing this at fifty.
So that’s the deal.
*I also love Underdog, the cartoon character, but that’s a different conversation.
**Uncle Rico: “How much you wanna make a bet I can throw a football over them mountains?… Yeah… Coach woulda put me in fourth quarter, we would’ve been state champions. No doubt. No doubt in my mind.”