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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A Little Goes a Long Way

Last week I received an e-mail from a dear friend thanking me for continuing to remind everyone that there is always value in making an effort no matter how small it might seem.  If you participate in available activities at whatever level you can, you will almost always be glad you did, even when that effort is sporadic. This has been a recurring theme throughout these blog posts.  But consistency of effort has also been a theme.  And here we are in the middle of summer when consistency in any aspect of our lives seems elusive. If we’re not busy travelling, we’re hosting visitors. When I first moved to this tourist town I remember being told, “if you live in the Black Hills, everyone wants to come and visit you”.  Many of my friends make their living during the summer months which doesn’t allow much time for anything else. As the saying goes, we all need to make hay while the sun shines. Sprinkle into this mix that kids (including children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends) are out of school and you have a recipe that’s guaranteed to throw your usual routines off-kilter.  So how do we reconcile the need for consistency in our practices in the face of so much disruption?

My first suggestion is to do what you can.  If you find some space in between commitments take advantage of it. Bring your visitors to a class or if you are the visitor, ask where you can find a class.  It can fun to try something different.  And if you don’t like it, you never have to do it again!  Takes all the pressure off so you can just have fun.  Still all the traveling and hosting can be exhausting.  But according to an article in the Harvard Health blog, exercise beats caffeine when you’re feeling tired. One more reason to squeeze it in whenever you can.

Maybe you can’t fit in a class, but you can probably manage a walk. Even 15 or 20 minutes is enough to revive your energy levels and bring some color to your cheeks. If you’re out of town and don’t know where to go, head for some trees. There has been a huge amount of research lately touting the benefits of connecting with nature.  A recent book called “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative” by Florence Williams cites numerous examples from this research.  Summer is the perfect time to take advantage of these benefits.  Greenery abounds.  Even in inner cities.  Ms. Williams says that even if you can walk down a city street where trees are growing you will feel the difference in your mood.  Another article in the Harvard Health blog echoes this sentiment and takes it a step further. The article refers to an analysis published by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences which shows that time spent in “green” places is linked to longer life in women.  “Specifically, there was a 13% lower rate for cancer mortality, 35% lower respiratory disease-related mortality, and 41% lower rate for kidney disease mortality in the women living in the areas with the highest levels of green vegetation.” Green things are growing all around us no matter where you live.  Smile as you walk by them.  It just might extend your life!

Another suggestion: remember that anything you do is better than nothing. One thing we know is that summer will end.  Even if the weather doesn’t change much, the kids will go back to school, travelers become less frequent for a while and routines can resume.  Anything you’ve done during the hiatus will be helpful when you get back to your regular activities.  Coming back and regaining your former strength, stamina and flexibility will be that much easier if you’ve been able to practice at all, even intermittently.

Which brings me to my third suggestion:  be patient and gentle with yourself.  Doing a little here and there can be frustrating. You might recognize that you’ve lost some of the gains you made during regular practice.  Getting them back might seem daunting and be a bit slower and more difficult than you hoped.  Take heart.  You got where you were once, you can get there again.  Of course, if you’re recovering from a physical setback modification may also be in order.  But no matter where you are, set your expectations aside and focus on the process.  Try setting goals related to process rather than specific achievements.  In other words, rather than saying, “I will be able to touch my toes in six weeks” try making your goal something like “I will practice regularly for the next six weeks”. The term “regular” can have any definition you like (e.g. daily, every other day, bi-weekly, weekly, whatever).  Just make it something you can maintain on a consistent basis.  Try to be consistent for as long as you can. Another thing you can be sure of is that life will throw curves into your best intentions. When that happens, go back to the suggestions above and return to consistency when you can.

Finally, relax and enjoy the novelty of change.  Accept what is and go with the flow. Life is finite.  Time is precious. If you can’t do everything you want to do, don’t beat yourself up. Just do what you can.  Focus on the positive.  Do what you can with what you have now and you will always be right.