Monday, August 4, 2008

Men, Part 3: The Competitors

King Curtis (featuring Duane Allman)--"Games People Play" (mp3)
The Who--"I Don't Even Know Myself (live)" (mp3)

I am blessed, I mean truly blessed, to have a number of hyper-competitive friends. That means that I can study them and try to find out how and why they work. Internally, I don't have a good understanding of the need to win. I mean, it's nice to win. I like to win. But the need to win as often as possible and for that to be the ultimate goal, that's what I don't get.

GAMBLING EXAMPLE: Two friends and I take a trip to Las Vegas. At the slot machines, one other friend and I decide to play the nickel slots for three reasons: 1) our money will last a long time, 2) we really don't care if we win, we're just enjoying hanging out, and 3) we get the free drinks even in the nickel slots area. My other friend, who outside of gambling is one of the most competitive people I know, is there to win. He plays the dollar slots, hoping to make the big kill, and in 10 minutes all of his gambling money for the trip is gone and he sulks the rest of the time.

I say that I am not competitive, but that is not entirely true; better put, I am extremely competitive in a super-secret kind of way, a kind of closet hyper-competitive. Mostly, with myself. I feel a sense of pride when I put in a good performance. But I'm always amazed when I am in the presence of the must-win-at-any-cost kind of competitor. Especially when I can tell that on some level, the competition has taken him over.

Maybe I'm setting up an artificial distinction.

Certainly, the person who competes with others so passionately is also competing with himself. Certainly, in the team context, the player who puts forth his best competitive effort is serving both his team and himself. Even in individual sports, the super-competitor has the potential, with his performance, to elevate the efforts of others.

The best golf I ever played occurred when I played with three other golfers who were far better than I was. Of course, they weren't competing with me, they were just good, and I wanted to be good, too. I was not trying to beat them; I was trying to better myself.

But when the super-competitor revs up, I shut down. Why? Because I know that he has to win, and that, in some strange way, makes me want him to win. To keep the peace. So he can save face. So we don't have the play the game incessantly until he does win. I don't know. You pick. It's probably one of those reasons. Certainly I don't let him win; I don't have that kind of skill.

This is why I'd make a lousy coach: in 1972, I was a third-string benchwarmer on the "varsity" middle school team, Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. We had a good team (that I had little to do with--I'd get in for some clean-up minutes once in awhile) and with one game to go in the season, we clinched the Section 8 championship. This made me absolutely certain that those of us who had been sitting on the bench all season would get the lion's share of the playing time. Then Coach Hobaugh announced in our victorious lockerroom: "Of course, we want to finish the season with a win." That one statement undercut the season, and not just for me. In a half-thought-out attempt to involve the whole team and still win the game, Coach Hobaugh created a hybrid starting team of a couple of first-stringers and three second-stringers. Those left-out first teamers immediately branded the new starters, "The Buddies." The morale of the team was broken, the players had no chemistry, and we lost that last game anyway. I did get to play and produced some more points than usual during my slightly-expanded minutes. In the locker room after the game, after the coach bitched us out for playing a lackluster game, I told my friend Dean, "Well, at least I played well." He warned me to be quiet, that coach might hear me, but I thought, why worry? The season's over and the coach who had to keep winning had already destroyed the vibe of a good season and it wasn't about team anymore anyway. It was about winning.

For me, probably the quintessential internal competitor is Kevin Costner's character in Tin Cup. As he stands on the golf course, hitting ball after ball after ball and saying "another" and "another" and "another," it's obvious that any other player on the course, or in the competition, has long since fallen away as he tries to achieve his best athletic self. It's understood that this is a fatalistic proposition and that the getting the girl and all of that requires some Hollywood manufacturing.

OK, so here's what I think the problem with competition is: the stuff that fuels it so often. If you think about it, if you want to whip someone into a hyper-competitive frenzy, you appeal to his baser instincts through the use of taunts, goads, jabs, boasts, comparisons, and any other kind of juice-stirring, possibly even involving his mother. That will get him going. Getting someone to be hyper-competitve is not unlike getting him jealous. All you have to do is beat him or create the possibility that you're going to beat him.

And his goal is likely no nobler--it's total domination. Because he has to go for the jugular, he's going to stick it to you, run up the score, totally own you, avenge whatever needs avenging, better yet, beat you every time to begin with, and plan his world around those competitions. If he does lose, you'd think the sky had fallen. If by some freak chance he loses to you, you'll have to play again until he wins. If he's a coach, the loss to you will eat away at him all year until he gets another chance.

And that's the other part of the problem: gaming and competing are social activities. Unless you are at the professional or organized levels, it behooves you to create an environment where others will want to play again. That's hard to do if you absolutely must win as often as possible and avenge your losses when you lose.

I know that this hyper-competitive mentality is part of what it means to be a man in our struttin', high-fivin', take-no-prisoners society and I suspect that the bottom line is that all men want to win. They just find their own competitions. Sometimes when I put the food on the table I'll ask my family, "Who else in Chattanooga is eating a meal this good tonight?" But I think where I come down a bit differently than the norm is that I admire the great performance more than the victory, the camaraderie more than the domination. If the two coincide, even better. I also admire the warrior who lives to fight another day more than a flash-in-the-pan who notches up a few quick victories. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I don't understand the hyper-competitive need to win anymore than I do my own lack thereof. I suspect, as always, childhood, which for me would be the relentless competitions with my older brother. Another. Another. Another.

"Games People Play" comes from the Duane Allman Anthology; "I Don't Even Know Myself" was playedby the "World's Greatest Rock 'n Roll Band" live at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. Both are at Itunes.


Billy said...

Very good post. Very good thoughts. But my posts and my thoughts are better.

Bob said...

Oh, yeah? Well I've got 4 new posts ready to go tomorrow. Want to see who can write the most this month?

jbradburn said...

It sounds like you do understand the will to win. But you're right about one thing - there's a fine line between being a competitive guy and being Bobby Knight, Bob Gibson, Ben Hoganm, Bill Bellichek or Roger Clemens.

Let's just say that for arguments sake that Bellichek represents the worst of this view. He's so competitive that he ignores the rules and he's destroyed numerous relationships in his desire to be No. 1. (Some would call these competitors sociopaths.)

I don't know many competitors like this.

I think most men like to compete -but as you so accurately note - they like to enjoy the event causing the competition. When someone breaks the rules - both written and unwritten - this can diminish the enjoyment of the event.

There's a huge difference between making someone putt a 3 footer - and ripping your golf glove open in the middle of key backswings.

I really think at the end of the day, you can tell whether or not you're a competitive guy or the "Bellichek" guy by what happened after the event:

Did you and your buddies enjoy talking over the events of the day while enjoying some cold ones? Are you able to take some good natured ribbing about the turn of events?

Really - I think this all comes down to the desire to be the alpha dog. At one time or another, we all want to be this alpha dog - because of the rewards. If you cannot be satisfied being anything but the alpha-dog, you are the Bellichek.

Billy Bob said...

Well said, as always, JB.