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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Changing Fast and Slow

We know that everything is always changing.  Why is it then that some things seems to change too quickly while other things change way too slowly.  All it takes is a visit from friends or family members who don’t live near you.  It doesn’t matter how many Facebook posts you’ve seen through the years.  Seeing people in person always provides a jolt.  Children show enormous changes over what feels like a relatively short period of time.  Over the same time period the adults around them also change, but those changes seem more slowly paced.  The changes in young people appear dramatic to the observer while changes in adults might be less obvious, more subtle.  Yet we adults still know how much we are changing.  We may not notice it on a daily basis, but eventually change becomes evident.  You can try to stave it off with hair dye and physical fitness, but inevitably we move a bit slower.  Healing takes longer.  Certain actions require more effort or preparation.

Some of us choose to fight with change.  Huge industries have been built around masking change.  There is hair dye and make up and cosmetic surgery.  Once this was primarily the province of women, but increasingly cosmetic counters are appealing to men also.  Our culture values youth.  And not just in terms of years, but also the way we look and behave.  Every day we are presented with images representing ideals.  Although we have learned that those images are rarely real, we can still feel that somehow we have to live up to those standards.

Then there’s the flip side:  recognizing change can feel like a losing battle so we resign ourselves and give up.  We think, “I can’t do ___ anymore (fill in the blank with whatever activity you’ve written off) so I’m just going to stop trying”.  Of course, eliminating or altering certain activities as we age can be a necessity due to our changing bodies.  A wise person learns to back off when expectations of one’s abilities stops matching the reality.  But even then change doesn’t have to mean all or nothing.  Life is rarely that simple.  There are often tweaks and modifications that allow us to continue finding things we can do that still give us pleasure.

In another version of the same problem, a person might recognize and accept change in themselves but then feel frustrated when others around them can’t or won’t do the same.  That person might think, “I keep telling them how much better things would be if they made this or that change, but still they won’t do it.” Unfortunately, none of us has any control over anyone else’s behavior.  Even our children.  Just as we are each different from our parents, are children are also separate individuals.  Of course, we all learn from each other, but each of us has our own way of interpreting and internalizing the inputs we receive. None of us ever really knows what goes on in another person’s mind.  For example, I might be thinking one thing when I say something to you, but you might hear what I say in a completely different way from my intention.  This is why as a teacher I am always looking for different ways of giving the same instruction.  Some people will learn from one method while others need another way to understand.  In my most recent post I talked about perception and how it varies for each of us. This is an prime example.  It does make relationships complicated.  But it’s also a reminder that human behavior is not always easily labeled.

Sometimes what feels like stagnation is really just super slow change.  Things don’t always happen on a time line we would like.  Progress on any front may seem painfully slow.  But frustration with the pace or nature of change usually occurs when making comparisons.  That might mean comparing things to some ideal that may or may not be achievable or comparing the present to a past that no longer exists and is never coming back.  Alternatively, sometimes it can feel like things are moving so fast that your head spins trying to keep up with it all.  You feel like you just want to hold on to something familiar rather than face the uncertainty of change.

No matter what we want, though, change is going to happen in its own time with or without us.  Our lives are brief and finite.  For us as humans time just keeps moving forward.  How much better it would be to simply accept what is and work from there.  Whatever stage your physical body is in at the present moment, it will be different tomorrow.  Not good or bad, better or worse.  Just different.  You might not feel yourself changing in this moment, but you are.  Go with the flow.  Be who you are.  As the song says, ” we are stardust; we are golden”.  Wherever you are right now it is where you are.  Tomorrow may be different.  But today is what it is.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the spectacular reminder this week of how small we really are.  Of course, I am referring to the eclipse. Regardless of our petty concerns, the stars and planets just keep moving.  On my walk today I listened to a podcast from Radiolab about the Voyager probe which has now gone beyond the edge of our solar system and is still moving.  Several years back, before it’s camera was turned off, Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn the camera around for one final look back at our solar system from it’s vantage point more than 4 billion miles from our earth.  In that photo the earth is a tiny, barely visible blue dot.  Kind of puts everything back into perspective.