The word competition often draws to mind hard-nosed athletes and coaches who will do anything to win. We imagine the tough business executive who will eliminate all adversaries to make the greatest profit.
But in fact, the win-at-all-costs attitude brings only short-term success. In order to win in the long run, one needs a much healthier perspective. Great athletes and leaders have shown us time and again that success often has little to do with the numbers on a scoreboard.
A memorable example happened during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Canadian cross-country skier Sara Renner was on her way to a gold medal in the team sprint when her ski pole broke. Without it, her team had no chance of winning. Seeing this, Norwegian coach Bjornar Haakensmoen gave Renner a new pole and she and Beckie Scott were able to finish the race with a silver medal.
The Norwegian team came in fourth. In other words, had Haakensmoen not given Renner a pole, his team would have won an Olympic medal. When asked about this later, Haakensmoen stated, “Our policy in Norway is we should give poles or skis to everyone. We talked about it at our team meeting the night before. We are a country which believes in fair play. I like to be somebody of fair sportsmanship.”
Though the Norwegians lost this race, it’s clear they were true winners. The incident was one of the highlights of the 2006 Olympics.
In order to make sense of this, we need to look at the root of the word ‘competition.’ It doesn’t mean to win. It comes from the Latin word ‘competere,’ to strive after something together. The Norwegian coach understood this. He knew that a bronze medal would mean nothing if his team had not earned it. The Canadians clearly deserved to complete the race ahead of them; on this day they were better. At the same time, when every athlete in an Olympic race is competing at their highest level, often achieving personal-best scores, is it really even possible to call anyone a loser?
All coaches and athletes know the value of competing in order to become your very best. You can do drill after drill, but it means nothing until it’s used in a competitive setting. After a game is played, good coaches talk to their players about what went well and what didn’t, and they come up with a practice plan to get ready for the next competition. Without the challenge, we can’t improve.
A good coach also knows the value of a loss. In fact, it’s much more difficult to be your best and stay focused on constant improvement if you’re always winning. In true competition there are no losers, only constant improvement.
Examples of this can be seen in all aspects of life. During the Cold War, there was intense competition in the automobile industry in West Germany, while in East Germany there was only one car maker. As a result, while Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Porsche and Volkswagen produced technologically-advanced, world-class automobiles, all the East Germans could come up with was a slow, polluting, unreliable, plastic (the body really was made of hard plastic) car called the Trabant.
Needless to say, production of the Trabant stopped shortly after German reunification, while the West German auto producers continue to advance on the global market.
Life is a beautiful and exciting thing when we seek constant improvement. We’re all meant to develop our own talents, and we’re better able to achieve unimaginable heights when we don’t strive to win, but to truly compete with our sisters and brothers.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.