Challenging Competitiveness

Photo: Peg Ryan – Mile High Pilates and Yoga

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
October 15, 2017

Custer, SD – This summer I volunteered at a couple of local running races.  Having run marathons myself, I appreciated the efforts made by volunteers when I was running and now try to help when I can.  Watching the runners I admired their fortitude.  As a former ultrarunner, I have a particular affinity for long races and often try to staff a post at which the runners passing through are either near the end of their race or at least more than half way.  Abilities vary but all have one thing in common – the desire to compete.   Some are competing to be the first to finish.  Others choose their competition based on pace.  Many races have awards in age-group categories in addition to overall winners providing another level of competition.  In ultrarunning, the distance itself is a worthy adversary and challenging terrain can further add to the intensity.  Some people compete with themselves, trying to better a previous mark or reach a goal they’ve established.

Competition can be a great motivator.  It is part of our lives from earliest memory.  The games we play as children are based on competition.  We learn at a the start of our lives that there are winners and losers.  Winning is celebrated and rewarded.  There is competition for toys in the sandbox and swings on the playground.  Everyone wants to be first and best.  This can be a good thing when it encourages one to strive for greater heights.  But many of us also remember the experience in gym class of being the last to be picked on a team or struggling to complete tasks that others found easy.  This might prompt us to begin labelling ourselves as capable or incompetent.  The internal dialogue of not being good enough begins when we’re young and may continue throughout our lives.  Instead of being a motivator, competition becomes an inhibitor.

We live in a society where competition is pervasive.  Even when we don’t realize it we measure ourselves against others.  It is a double-edged sword.  Seeing someone else do something really well might be a source of inspiration or it might convince you that it’s not worth trying because you’ll never be as good as them.  The effects of competition can be insidious.  It is present whenever we compare ourselves to others or worry about what someone else thinks of us.  We all want to be viewed as winners and it hurts when we think we’ve been bested by another.

As with everything, though, there are many ways of viewing competition.  It’s all about perception.  The terms “winning” and “losing” are arbitrary labels meaning different things to different people.  Furthermore, like everything else in our lives, they are temporary.  Can any of you name a sports star of the past who kept winning forever?  Sure they had wins that will always be in the “win” column.  But eventually they had to cede the top slot to someone else.  That may not mean that competition stops for them.  But it probably means  that the competitive standards change

It won’t come as news to anyone reading this that our abilities change as we get older.  This can work both ways, though.  Your skills might decline in some ways.  For example, during my volunteer stints I heard some older racers lamenting the fact that they weren’t as fast as they used to be.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but just because it’s obvious doesn’t make it any easier to accept.  Still no one can go back; we all have to keep moving forward.  How to move forward is a matter of choice.  One choice is to change the competitive parameters.  Instead of competing with your former self and lamenting your inability to do so, perhaps you can move the target.  Back away from former goals and set new ones that more realistically reflect your current status.  Just finishing can be considered a “win”.  Being good at something is in the eye of the beholder.  Be your own cheerleader!  You determine what it means to win.

Those of you who follow this blog know that accepting change is a recurring theme.  Attitudes toward competition fall into this same category.  For me it is helpful to remember that doing something is better than doing nothing.  This is even reflected in my practice of yoga and Pilates.  There are moves and poses I used to do that no longer work for me for one reason or another.  It is worth more to me to continue enjoying the movement I can do rather than force myself into certain positions just because others are doing them.  Injury might mean stopping altogether, so being mindful about how I move and what I choose to do makes sense to me.  Still this doesn’t mean I no longer try new things or challenge myself.  But it does mean that I avoid being influenced by what others are doing or thinking.  The competitive parameters I set for myself now are subject to change on a daily basis and that’s fine with me.  Nothing is fixed.  Everything is fluid.  Some days are better than others.  But there is something to celebrate in every day.  And that in itself is a “win”.

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Coping with Change

Changing of the seasons marks a time of transition.  Although the calendar tells us that Fall has arrived, we still experience remnants of the season just passed while not yet quite fully ensconced into the new season.  This uncertainty can create mixed emotions.  For example,  we might experience confusion (as in “How should I dress today?  Can I plan an outdoor activity?”) or sadness (e.g., “I love summer! I’m sorry to see it go.”) and maybe a bit of anxiety (“What will winter bring? Am I properly prepared? I don’t feel ready.”)  Or all of the above and more.

In addition to changes in the weather and the scenery, each new season marks the passage of time.  We get so involved in our daily lives that we rarely recognize that we are changing along with the seasons.  That is, until something happens to remind us of that.  It might be something dramatic like a fall or an accident, or something more subtle like last year’s winter clothes not quite fitting anymore.  Sometimes it’s an illness or other physical change that effects us in ways we’ve not previously experienced.  Whatever it is, even when it’s right in front of us, we can still manage to get lost in denial.  We want things to be like they were.  Yet change is all around us.  At this time of year all we have to do is look out the window to see its manifestations.  Yet still we can’t believe that change is occurring within as well as outside.

Actually it shouldn’t surprise us that it’s difficult to see and accept change in ourselves.  After all, we’ve never before been as old as we are now – whatever age that is.  Even though we’ve witnessed aging in people around us, we can rationalize that it happens to others but not to us.  It’s also easy to believe that what happens to others won’t happen to us because we’re different.  And – yes – it’s true!  Each of us IS different and we all age in different ways.  That’s why I get a kick out of every interview with a centenarian.  The interviewer asks “What is the secret of your longevity?” as if the answer will provide some magic path that everyone can follow to get to the same place.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As I’ve often said, we are all an experiment of one.  That applies here, too.  Just because one person can drink whiskey and smoke cigars daily and still live to be 100 doesn’t mean everyone can.  Everyone wants a magic bullet and a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to work that way.  It would be nice if our medical system would acknowledge that fact, but that’s another subject.

Since change is constant and inevitable, we each need to find our own individual way to cope with that change.  Those of us who are accustomed to regular activity often find this particularly difficult, but it’s difficult for anyone used to doing things a certain way.  Realizing that what used to be easy is now more difficult or even impossible can be a bitter pill to swallow.  But looking back at some mythical “better” time or wishing things hadn’t happened the way they did won’t change the way things are.  As difficult as it may seem, the best way to accommodate any new reality is to adapt.  This doesn’t mean giving up.  It simply means finding a way to accept the changes.  That’s not to say that this is easy.  But if you want to have any peace of mind, it is necessary.

So with the changing of the seasons, perhaps it’s a good time to take stock of how you’re handling the changes in your life.  And change is happening whether you realize it or not.  Further complicating matters, every change differs from any change that occurred before.  So perhaps an intervention that worked before no longer has the same effect.  You might have to try a different approach. This, too,  is reflected in the seasons. Fall comes every year, just like daylight comes every day.  Yet each Fall, like each day, is different from the one before.  And what you did last Fall or even yesterday might not work today, even when you’re addressing the same problem.  If you look back through the seasons of your life you will be hard pressed to find two seasons, or two days, that were exactly the same as the one before.  Think about it.  Memory is faulty but if you reflect honestly, you’ll see that’s true.

Ignoring change won’t make it stop and going back in time is not possible.  Moving forward with our lives from this point in time is the only option.  No matter how bleak things look, there is always something positive in this moment.  After all daylight came and you’re still breathing.  That’s something positive!  Maximize what’s positive right now and remember that change is constant.  Whatever you’re experiencing today will change tomorrow.