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Why do we compete?

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Why do we compete?

I began playing organized football when I was ten and it was the absolute worst. Everything about it was a complete drag and almost ruined football for me. When I was ten, I was full of youthful energy, jumping at any chance to play “throw up, tackle” or “teams” with my friends at the PAL. I always stayed the latest, but it didn’t matter to me because I was always playing some kind of sport until my mother showed up. By the time my mother came and picked me up, I reeked of “cheesesteaks and outside” as she so elegantly put it. My signature aroma entered the car with me as I sat down beside her and prepared to tell her about my day. I would ramble on and on about how I scored too many touchdowns to count and how no one could tackle me because I was too slippery or too strong. She often responded with the occasional “You really did that?” or “Get out of here, no way!” up until it was time to get out of the car. One day, she picked me up from my youth league and told me she had a surprise for me. We went to pick up my brother from his football practice and then drove to the surprise. Naturally, I thought we were going to McDonalds or Subway for dinner that night, so I slowly became impatient as the ride continued. Little did I know, she signed me up to play organized football for the Parkville Patriots, a team my friend’s parent had told her about. We went to a practice so I could get a feel of what organized football was. In short, it looked like hell. I watched a group of sweaty kids my age practice plays, run around a baseball field, get yelled at by a bunch of fat middle aged men with slight anger issues, all while wearing equipment that made them look like human bobble heads. It was like was watching a live chess match and I had only played checkers my entire life. I became overwhelmed to the point where I didn’t even want to step foot near the field and I begged my mother to not sign me up, but she didn’t listen.

The registration process took place in a hot gym and lasted about 30 minutes. I waited in line until I reached the registration tables. At the tables they asked for my name, my personal information, and the money for me to participate. Once I finished giving them my life story, they took my picture and sent me around the corner to the practice field where I was fitted for my equipment and participated in my first practice. My pads were bigger than my entire torso and my helmet looked like it belonged to an astronaut. On top of all of that, I didn’t even get to play the position I wanted to play. When I played in the youth league, I was always the running back, but when I came to Parkville, they moved me to lineman because I was too big to be a running back. Practice was the worst part about it all. I had to run around the entire field twice, then do jumping jacks and an assortment of stretches. This was just the warm-up! After warm-ups, they split us up by position and had us hit each other one the very first day. The only thing that I liked was game day because it was what I was used to. Just playing football, running around hitting each other, being that same ball of energy that was running around the youth league.

Even though I wasn’t playing the position I wanted, I still was able to enjoy the game because I loved the competition and winning helped boost my desire to compete. That year we only lost one game and became the Harford and Baltimore County Youth Football League (HBCYFL) Champions. We went on to the state playoffs and got all the way to the championship game where we suffered a heartbreaking 6-7 loss against some team from upper Maryland. That game was the coldest I had ever been in my life and, to top it all off, I just lost the biggest football game of my life. I remember my teammates crying about not being able to feel their fingers and having asthma attacks because of how cold it was, but all that kept coming to mind was the loss. Even as I got in the car and was screaming in absolute agony because my hands and feet felt like they were falling off, I kept thinking about the losing to some team I had never even heard of. Nobody likes to lose, especially in the championship game, but losing is part of the reason we compete.

People compete daily for jobs, spots in the grocery line, for others approval/attention, for fun, and sometimes for survival. It’s not just humans either. Animals in the wild compete daily for shelter, food, resources, and survival. There’s no denying that competition surrounds us, but why? Why must we compete? What forces us to compare ourselves to others and try to outperform or be better than those others? Is it biology? Is competition in our DNA, or is it something we’ve created through our years of existence? Competition helps drive people to be the best versions of themselves and motivates them to continually grow. Not only is it a motivating factor, but it is universally applicable. Competition is a language we all speak and it’s something everyone will encounter in their lifetime. It makes us better and it helps us realize what we need to do to improve. Competition has been shown to cause increases in creativity in people and allows people to become innovators. “Whether professional musicians or school children, studies have shown competition fuels creativity and even improves the quality of the work produced,” said Ashley Merryman, co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, in an interview with Forbes. “More than that, the skills that make you a great competitor – such as a willingness to push boundaries, trust one’s instincts, problem-solve – those are the same skills needed for innovation.”

My second year playing football was a major step up. My brother at the time was in high school and he was preparing for his senior year of football, so he took with him when he went to train. Our workout routine consisted of running stairs, doing all sorts of push up variations, and endless speed ladder exercises to build up my agility. All summer we worked on these things every Saturday and when it came time for him to report to football camp, I would attend the practices and watch what his teammates did. Eventually, registration time came around and when I reported back to the team I was one of the biggest/strongest kids we had. Not only did I play offensive line this year, but I played defensive line as well and I excelled at this position. I frequently would get tackles for losses and I was much happier playing defensive line because all I had to do was chase the person with the ball. It was so, easy and it gave me a chance to get some of the shine that I wouldn’t get playing offensive line. We went undefeated this year and in the conference championship game I had two sacks and three tackles. I was awarded the most outstanding linemen award for the game and for the second straight year we went to the state championship game. However, the result was still the same. We suffered another heartbreaking loss to some team from upper Maryland in the frigid cold. The score was 12-7 and everyone was a mess. There was slush all over the turf, kids were crying about the cold again, and I was devastated that we lost yet another state championship game. From that moment on, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to quit football until I either got a championship or got too old to play football.

My competitive nature was developed during my early years in football. The sport taught me the values of working harder than the person across from you and sometimes next to you. As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve started to realize that it goes beyond the sports field. I’ve gotten to a point where almost everything I do I view it as some sort of a competition because I believe I will work harder if I have someone to compare myself to. It could be as simple as being the person who rides shotgun or coming first in Mario Kart, I don’t really care I just want to win. I’m not sure if I’d consider it an obsession, but there are times where I feel like I’m too competitive when it isn’t necessary.

There are people who think competition is more harm than help to people. An article written in the Irish Times delves into the impact of over-competition in sports on the mental health of kids. The article speaks about how children who don’t receive as much playing time as the other kids are more likely to feel bad about themselves because they aren’t seeing the field as much as their teammates are. Parents argue that coaches should focus on development and having fun rather than winning. Some people believe competition brings out the best in people. A blog post written on the Esperance Angelican Community School’s website lays out the benefits of competitive sports in education, specifically in younger children. They argue that competitive sports encourages higher standards of achievement, encourage physical activity, builds discipline, teaches how to deal with loss/ disappointment, and teaches kids the value of teamwork.

I spoke with Muhlenberg alum A.J Barnold who currently works with U.S. Women’s Soccer team as a performance data analyst. Barnold was an accomplished soccer player during his time at Muhlenberg earning first-team all-conference honors while being a three-year starter for the Mules soccer team. Upon graduating from Muhlenberg college, Barnold went on to receive his master’s degree in sports psychology from Temple University and worked for some division I soccer programs before landing a job with the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. “Sports, specifically soccer, have been a huge part of my life – especially since my career in the sports world,” said Barnold. “Being recruited to play in college helped me find Muhlenberg, which eventually became a big part of getting to where I am now.  I’ve also been lucky enough to travel around the world to play and work in soccer, which I may not have had the opportunity to do otherwise.”

I think it’s interesting to think about the impact these kinds of experiences have on people and how they may influence the outcomes of their lives. Barnold is a former accomplished soccer player who used his knowledge and understanding of the game to create a career for himself. “I believe there have been several studies in recent years that found employers see college athletes as very desirable employees,” explained Barnold. “This is because many of the factors that help athletes to succeed in their sport carry over into the work force. Many of these factors sound like clichés, but they are often true. Athletes are usually intrinsically motivated to perform and set effective goals for themselves. Those who play team sports know how to work well with others. Athletes persevere in the face of adversity and have a stronger ability to think on the fly and problem solve in pressure situations.”

What I thought was most interesting from this response was his mentioning of intrinsic motivators. “Research in sport and performance psychology maintains that intrinsic factors are the most effective motivators,” said Barnold. “Extrinsic factors such as money, praise, or avoiding negative consequences can lose their motivating effects over time. Factors from within a person tend to last much longer and are better motivators – doing a sport or job for the enjoyment of it, to develop mastery of skills or knowledge, and to be part of a group or something bigger than oneself.”

Barnold’s response to this last question resonated the most with myself, particularly because I was able to relate with it the most. My own intrinsic factors/motivators are what encouraged me to continue playing sports throughout my life. Things like money and national praise never were an option for me, I just participated because the game brought me great joy. There wasn’t any need for outside forces to motivate me, I worked and played hard because I wanted to be great at the thing that brought me joy. This mindset carried over to the classroom as well.

Around the same time I began playing football, I started to become a better student as well. I attribute this to one rule my mother set from the moment I started playing which was that “You do good in school; you get to play football. You start screwing up in school; you don’t get to play football. School first, football after.” This typically is the rule for most student-athletes, but from the moment I started playing my mother made sure I understood that if I was going to do what I loved, I would have to take care of business in the class room first. Intrinsic factors and motivations have been found to improve learning, performance, creativity, optimal development, and psychological wellness. This was the case for me seeing that since the fifth grade school has been my main priority. In middle school I was placed in advanced learning programs because I tested out of the regular curriculum. In high school I managed to achieve honor roll all four years and maintained a 3.8 GPA while never missing a single day of class. Even in college, I have been able to achieve the Dean’s List honors not once, but twice since my freshmen year and intend on continuing that tradition for the rest of my academic career. My success in the classroom setting all stems from my desire to compete. I make sure I take care of my business in the classroom to ensure that I can what I love on the football field.

Competitive sports have been cited as important to education as well, seeing that it establishes ideas such as encouraging higher standards of achievement, encouraging physical activity, building discipline, learning how to deal with disappointment, and building camaraderie/teamwork skills. However, everyone can’t be a superstar and that’s where it can become problematic. Not everyone is going to be as athletically gifted as their counterpart, thus leading to them being left off the field come game time. This creates a space for disappointment and discourage within a person and can lead to them not wanting to participate in competitive settings. That Irish Times article cites over-competition in children’s sports as being “problematic for children’s mental health.” The reasoning behind this is that there are some children who are disappointed in the fact that they may not see the field as much as their teammates or that they are receiving playing time, but feel like they have to perform at a high level to gain approval from their coaches and peers. These factors can steer a child away from competitive sports altogether and ultimately result in them losing their joy for the sport.

There was a time in my athletic career where I was in a similar position. In fact, it was my freshman year of college at the beginning of summer training camp. After my senior year ended, I felt burnt out and tired of football. I didn’t have the ideal senior campaign I was hoping for and my desire to play was at an all time low. Before reporting to training camp that year I sat down with my mother at IHOP and we had a heart to heart. We ordered our food and held small talk for about fifteen minutes until the food was ready. The more we talked the more I began to realize that this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation to have with her. She was frequently speaking about how excited she would be to come up to the school to watch me play. How she couldn’t wait to meet my teammates parents and tailgate with them. How she we sit in the stands yelling “Cmon Diggs, I need two of em today if you wanna eat!” As our food came out, I watched her elegantly prepare her syrup-soaked pancakes into neat triangles before I decided to tell her what was eating at me inside. Right as she was sticking her fork into the stack of three pancake triangles I blurted out, “Ma, we need to talk. I have something I want to tell you.” Puzzled by my sudden interruption, she looked me dead in the face and saw something was eating at me.

“You got her pregnant, didn’t you?”

“What!? Ma what are you talking about no!” She thought I had got my long-time girlfriend pregnant after three years of dating.

“Ok, I just gotta make sure. You know your brother expecting one, I had to make sure there wasn’t no more surprises. What is it that’s bothering you?”

“I don’t think I want to play football in college Ma. I feel drained and I’m not having fun anymore. Last season took a lot out of me and I felt like I was losing my drive to play.”

She didn’t say anything initially she just looked at me, then looked at her food. All those years of little league and high school football were flashing before her eyes. She was remembering every touchdown, every tackle, every post game hug, and all the other experiences that came with playing football.

Finally, after what seemed like the longest ten seconds of my life she asked, “Well, why now?”

“What do you mean? I’m just burnt out and think it’s time for me to hang em up.”

“Ok, that’s fine and I completely understand, but how is this going to affect you? Part of the reason you chose this school was because of football, so without it what do you plan on doing?”

“Well you know, I’d still work out and go to school and everything. I just wouldn’t play football.”

“And you think you’d be able to focus the same?”

“Of course, I’ll have more time on my hands.”

“Well I don’t know James. I think you should at least give it a try. You never know what’ll happen. Maybe you’ll get that fire back. Just give it a try this one season and if things don’t go well then you can hang it up for good.”

“I don’t know Ma; I really am not feeling good about it.”

“Just try it James. For me ok.”

“Alright.”

Later that year I became the team’s second leading rusher and played in the last six games of the season.More importantly, my drive came back, and I was having fun again. I wanted to be out on the field with my teammates, I wanted to listen to my family scream my name in the stands on Saturdays, and I wanted to go out and compete for a championship each time I stepped foot on that field.

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