Updated: Feb 26
By Gyaneshwaran Gomathinayagam
Published in The Doon School Weekly
Feb 22, 2020 | Issue no. 2563
The debate on the pros and cons of competition has been on for a long time. While most of us would side clearly with one view, some (myself included) would be unable to determine the answer, feeling that there may be something wrong in choosing one over the other when the merits and demerits seem to be equally strong.
Merits of competitions are that it provides the challenge and motivation to participants to continue striving towards excellence, thereby enabling them to move towards realising their true potential. The demerits are that it kills cooperation, and creates stress. Individuals associate their value and self-worth only with winning and defeating others. They may then try to earn respect and prove themselves worthy to others by trying to prove that others are less worthy of respect than them. This is obviously a very unhealthy attitude.
I feel that every individual is unique, valuable and incomparable, and that one’s self-worth should not be based on external factors like winning some competition. If it is so, then they are bound to lose at some point of time, since there can only be one winner in any competition, and one can’t win all the time. The pressure to keep winning in order to remain worthy of respect creates stress giving way to other negative emotions like self-deprecation, depression and emptiness. This them raises the question: is competition good or bad?
After reading The Inner Game of Tennis: The Ultimate Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey, the dilemma was finally resolved for me.
It turns out that the problem lies in our flawed understanding of ‘competition’. It is vital that as parents and teachers, we understand the correct meaning of ‘competition’ and teach that to our children and students so that they lead healthy lives and reap the benefits of ‘competition’ without any ill-effects.
In his book, Gallwey explains that each of us has two selves which he calls Self One and Self Two. Self-One is the conscious mind – our ego. Self-Two is our subconscious mind – our true self. During matches when a player makes a mistake and you see him cursing himself, “keep your eyes on the ball, dammit! Focus!”, that’s Self-One admonishing Self-Two. The goal of all competition is for the participants to keep Self-One quiet and let Self-Two perform at full potential. When this happens, we typically say that the player is in ‘the zone’ and is ‘playing out of this world’, or ‘playing like God’.
Gallwey defines ‘winning’ as reaching a desired goal after overcoming some obstacles. Winning is not defined by defeating another person, though this does happen in a competition. Gallwey explains this using the beautiful example of surfing. While surfing the waves, you deliberately wait for the biggest wave (the toughest opponent) possible, because your victory is defined by the obstacle you overcame to reach the goal (here, the shore). So, in a competition, you should seek a worthy (tough) opponent who can pose a tough obstacle for you to overcome in order to make your win (if it happens) meaningful.
So, if you were competing in the correct sense of the word, during a tennis match for instance, you would want your opponent to get a good first serve in enabling you to test your skill and hit a good return. You would not be hoping for a double fault! The former attitude will also put you in a better frame of mind and ready you to give a good return when the opponent does get a good first serve in.
With this understanding that the opponent plays the vital and useful role of providing the obstacle against which one can test one’s skills in order to improve, one will be grateful and thankful to the opponent and want them to perform at their best. At the end of the match, winning or losing won’t matter since both focus only on putting their best effort to overcome the challenge posed by the other, both benefit and grow from this effort. Their self-worth is not measured by their victory or defeat in the match. At the end of the match, when the opponents shake hands, they will feel genuinely grateful for the worthy challenge posed by each for the other, and the learning they both experienced as a result of their efforts to overcome that challenge. Thus, there are only winners and no losers in a ‘true competition.’