The Competitive Hedge

Not many have been impervious to boorish professional sports stars banging on about how they hate to lose games with their colleagues – and even their kids – because they are ‘so competitive’. These dullards merrily recount how they storm off in a strop at any ‘defeat’ inflicted on them, wearing their hissy chagrin like a warpo badge of honour. Many of these are sporting titans, revered and celebrated, and they revel in the self-generated notoriety that they are always ‘up for a scrap’.

I remember once going to an office get-together at a bowling alley when one of the attendees produced a small leather case with gold fastenings, opening it to reveal a personalised, embossed Brunswick bowling ball couched in panne velvet. Now that’s borderline psychotic obsession with winning, wrapped up with layers of tone-deaf contextual appreciation.

Which brings us to the nature of competition. Psychologists understand the seed of ‘competition’ in terms of incentives and whether these are seated internally or externally. With extrinsic incentives, individuals are motivated to crank up their determination by the promise of an externally sourced reward. So, for professional sportsmen and enthusiastic amateurs, there will be titles, trophies, and money. In such a context, competitive drive is understandable.

Alternatively, motivation to compete may be intrinsic in nature, rooted in their sense of what they feel is right and proper. This might mean that they indulge themselves in order to support others or out of a personal sense of satisfaction or enjoyment through participation itself.

So, hobbyists may try hard to play their best game without being fixated on the desire to win. This is not a contradictory proposition, but a question of motivation even if the end results are the same (one person wins).

There is a further angle.

The tricky proposition with competition is that it is zero-sum; for somebody to win, everybody else has to lose. With leisure sport, what happens next – after the final whistle blows – is an equally critical piece of the puzzle in terms of its raison d’être.

A well-adjusted person plays the game, may try their best to play it well but then recognises that once the game is over, real life goes on. And real life is grounded in relationships. That seamless transition between the end of the game and the onward flow of everyday life demarcates where healthy competition ends and cooperation begins. If it didn’t unfold in that way, most people would not want to play at all. Let’s face it, who wants to devote their leisure time to staring across the net or playing field at hate-filled, snarling psychos?

Only other hate-filled, snarling psychos.

On the same ticket, those who think that a game of cards with their five-year-old daughter merits the same intensity as a multi-million-dollar edge-sorting grind in Vegas end up creating interpersonal Chernobyl.

So, what is it about the wackos who glorify in their ultra-competitiveness?

Well, anybody unable to differentiate between a leisure activity and a professional endeavour, and the discrete genre of self-application that each involves, has a serious adjustment problem. While they may have a sackful of trophies and accolades, upturning Ker-Plunk in the living room never contributed one yocto to that success. It just alternatively limited their ability to wind-down, harming themselves and those closest to them. These clodpoles cook up their own flavour of dysfunctional and localised dystopia and delight in its celebration as a divine path to personal triumph.

But in all fairness, these loons need help – all the frenzied frothing is nothing more than an unsubtle defence mechanism; a way of protecting their already fragile self-esteem by surrounding themselves with any resounding victory that might deflect attention from their self-perceived shortcomings. Yes, deep down they know that they’re woefully flawed. Far from being a competitive edge, it is more of a competitive hedge.

If they truly were that pathologically ruthless, they ought just to can the cards and board games altogether and progress straight to Russian Roulette – preferably with a howitzer. That would be consistent with their all-or-nothing outlook and values. And might just do us all a meaty favour.

Nevertheless, these views do not automatically flow in support of banning school competitions, which has for some time been a favoured stance of the wetter-than-woke shambolic shower. Winning and losing are facts of life – as learning the relationship between effort and results is a critical life lesson – so culling school sports days amounts to nothing more than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The real issue lies in educating children about this – and about contexts. Achieve that, and we might succeed in nurturing some adults with higher self-esteem who are relaxed about celebrating successes of others and working towards the greater good. You never know, we might be stunned by a crescendo of selflessness.

And all this applies not just to human individuals but equally to governments when the most determined ding-dong fruitcakes ascend to the apex of the greasy pole.

Obsessive, insular, win-at-all-costs mentalities have long since delivered full trophy cabinets and wasted, empty lives.

Sometimes full cabinets.

Their victories are however only too often pyrrhic, particularly when shooting for the moon from the hip.

Until the dysfunctional dancing stops, our most significant steps will be backwards.

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