The Value of Competition

My brothers and sister and I were raised in a small house in blue-collar Rockford, Illinois.  While I don't recall ever truly lacking anything, we had a somewhat meager existence.  My dad worked hard, rising every morning at 3:00 am to put food on our table and gifts under the Christmas tree.  Having four siblings, a dog and a guinea pig meant that equitable sharing was a constant challenge.  It also instilled in me a competitive spirit that helped ensure I got enough to eat and instilled a strong desire to win.  At everything.

It was in those formative years that I developed the ill-advised 'skill' of eating fast.  With seven mouths at the table, taking your time and chewing your food meant you got less of the good stuff, and possibly left the table hungry.  My dad was the fastest, and by unconsciously emulating him I developed bad eating habits, which I've passed on to some of my kids, much to my wife's dismay. 

Having limited resources growing up meant that all of our meals were spent at our kitchen table; going to a restaurant was an extremely rare and special occasion.  It was not until much later in life that I was exposed to quality dining experiences, which fostered a completely new and bizarre competition in my mind:  My meal had to be the best.  Not the most expensive, mind you, but the best tasting and most envied of my dining peers.  If a friend ordered before me and 'stole' my choice, I would pick up my menu and find something else, because a tie meant you didn't win.  If I ordered first, and someone else ordered the same dish as me, I would call the waiter back and change my order.  These competitions were private: my competitors didn't know that our meal was being scored, but the few times I 'won' gave me incredible (and incredibly weird) satisfaction.

I'm telling this story as a result of much reflection and thought on the unfortunate plight of the Jackie Robinson West Little League team and their extremely public battle with winning, losing, and trying to compete.  I won't comment on the legality or morality of what their team did or didn't do, but instead focus on the importance of competition, especially at a young age.

As evident from my personal competitions, a competitive spirit without true competition is a bad thing.  I unconsciously invented ways to make my life a competition, trying to fulfill some inner need.  Structured competition, on the other hand, provides both the opportunity to win, and to be recognized for winning, as well as the exposure to losing, and learning to lose with grace and dignity. 

In my previous posts, I discussed the importance of 'doing your best', 'working hard' and most importantly 'having fun' in life and on the baseball diamond. What is often overlooked with these tenets, however, is the fact that winning is fun.  There's nothing that lifts spirits and instills confidence in kids like winning.  Winning makes all the hard work worthwhile, and gives us moments to celebrate and remember.  Business leaders often say that what's not measured doesn't matter.  In other words, if a business cares about improving some part of their business they need to measure and track that activity -- they need to keep score.  Keeping score allows us to understand who wins, because no one cares about a competition without a score or without a result.  If you've ever been at a high school football game when suddenly the scoreboard stops working you know what I mean.  The on-field activity may continue, but the fans lose track of the action and as a result stop caring about the result.

 As much fun as it is to win, learning how to lose is much more important.  Losing makes you stronger. Losing makes you drive for more.  Losing motivates you to work hard.  Losing enables you to put an internal value on whatever activity you are doing.  If you are not driven to succeed or deeply bothered by your losses then you have the opportunity to learn something about yourself and what's truly important.  I was on the swim team in my freshman and sophomore years of high school. I loved to swim and worked hard in practice.  I tried my hardest in competitions but only won the slowest of races.  As I grew older, I learned that swimming wasn't that important to me, and decided to focus on other things.  I wouldn't call this quitting; losing just taught me an important life lesson, although I didn't realize it at the time.

 Unfortunately, a short stint at competitive swimming didn't give me enough lessons to realize the other areas of my life where I was underachieving. Academics were not very challenging, and I spent most of my extra time teaching myself computer programming.  I was a whiz before anyone knew what a whiz was and was hired by an educational software company when I was barely 17.  While I am proud of my achievements back then, it was only later in life that I realized I actually underachieved, because I didn't challenge myself enough.  I didn't set big enough goals.  I didn't compete.  If I had, I might have seen others who were just as good, if not better than me.  I would have lost, and losing would have made me try harder and do more with the skills I had developed.  Losing is probably the only thing that could have knocked that cocky, know-it-all teenager down a few pegs and taught him something about living life.

 Structured competitions provide valuable life lessons -- lessons that are important to learn at an early age.  Baseball and sports in general provide the opportunity for kids to be part of a team and compete in serious competitions.  Not all kids are athletes, but there are other competitions that provide teamwork and life lessons in an academic context.  One example of which I am very familiar is an organization called FIRST.  FIRST stands for 'For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology' and is an organization founded by Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway) whose mission is to show students of every age that science, technology, and problem-solving are not only fun and rewarding, but are proven paths to successful careers and a bright future for us all.  I coach my daughter's FIRST Lego League team. FIRST Lego League introduces younger students to real-world engineering challenges by building LEGO-based robots to complete tasks on a thematic playing surface.  Through hard work and practicing, my team has achieved great successes and suffered heart-wrenching losses.  In the end however, they all realized that what they learned is more important that what they won, a concept which alone will enable them to achieve great things in the future.

 I also coach youth baseball, and baseball provides its own unique lessons on winning and losing.  Baseball is a game of failure.  In a professional baseball career, you can 'fail' 7 out of 10 times at the plate, and still make the Hall of Fame.  Baseball, more than any other sport or activity, teaches us that every at bat is a new opportunity to succeed -- that you must put that last strikeout, or that last error behind you because your opportunity to succeed is right here, right now, and that nothing else matters.  Baseball also teaches you that life is not fair.  It's a fundamentally human game governed by umpire judgment, who many times will call a ball a strike, sending a 10 year old to the bench with unimaginable frustrations.  Succeeding at baseball teaches kids to accept life's peculiar inequitableness and not to dwell on the past.  It also teaches us to not give up, and like some other team sports, it teaches us the value and necessity of working as a team.

 While much of the world is crying foul at what the Jackie Robinson West team did or didn't do, or what Little League International should or shouldn't do, in the end the kids on that team are better people for it.  On the field, their coaches taught them the core tenets of youth baseball, including how to 'respect the game' with their teamwork and gracious spirit.  Off the field, they have learned that like baseball itself, much of what happens in life, be it right or wrong, is outside of their control and that their next at bat awaits them.