This is one of my favorite quotes from The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. (To check out my book recommendations, click here). Before I dive in to what exactly Gallwey meant, let’s take a quick look at the meaning of competition.
Compete comes from the latin words “com” and “petere”. “Com” means together and “petere” means to strive or seek. Put them together and compete means “to strive together.”
But wait, that doesn’t make sense... Competing is about pitting one person against another and seeing who comes out on top. It’s about grudge matches where both sides want to kick the other’s ass.
This is how most of us view competition. It’s about one person winning and the other losing. And, this is the key point, when you lose, it’s because you suck.
“You Win - I Suck”
The problem with this attitude is that we put our self-image on the line. I call this the “You win - I suck” attitude toward competition. If I lose, I’m a worse person because of it. And when the tables are flipped, I feel like I’ve established my superiority over you, not only on the court, but as a person too.
This is the big assumption that trips us up; we equate our self-worth with our performance.
Simply put, we’re afraid of not measuring up. And if we view competition in the “you win - I suck" frame of mind, one person is automatically going to feel like they don’t measure up.
This is obviously bad. We don’t want how we view ourself to be dependent on the outcome of a game. But at least when we’re desperate to win we’ll play better, right? Wrong.
When we view our performance as a reflection of our self-worth, we’re likely to play worse. Gallwey explains it well. “If I am secretly afraid that playing badly or losing the match may be taken to mean that I am less of a man, naturally I am going to be more upset with myself for missing shots. And, of course, this very uptightness will make it more difficult for me to perform at my highest levels.”
It’s a double whammy. if you view competition as a way to prove yourself to others, you’ll not only invite feelings of inadequacy but perform worse as well.
So, Why Compete At All?
Competition brings out the best in us. It adds challenges that me must work to overcome. In the process of overcoming those challenges, we grow. Competition, when done in the right frame of mind, can inspire us to new heights.
Tying it all Together
When you think about the benefits of competition, the latin definition “to strive together” begins to make more sense.
With this attitude, competition is an agreement between two people to bring out the best in each other. Our goal is to make it as difficult on the other person as possible so that we can grow.
It may sound corny, but isn’t that a better reason to compete? To bring out the best in ourselves and in each other rather then to try to prove your worth as a man?
In healthy competition, nobody truly loses. This is the opposite of the “you win - I suck” attitude. This is more like "you win - I improve."
While someone will be named the official winner, both are better off for having competed. In that way, doesn’t competition sound a lot like cooperation?
Gallwey sums it up nicely. "Each player tries his hardest to defeat the other, but in this use of competition it isn’t the other person we are defeating; it is simply a matter of overcoming the obstacles he presents. In true competition no person is defeated. Both players benefit by their efforts to overcome the obstacles presented by the other. Like two bulls butting their heads against one another, both grow stronger and each participates in the development of the other.”
This is why it’s so crucial to get rid of the “you win - I suck” paradigm of competition; It makes us afraid to compete. And it’s in that all-out competition that our best arises.