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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Judgment-Free Zone

With all the recent emphasis on the many ways in which we humans are different from each other, it seems like an appropriate time to remind ourselves of all the traits we share.  For example, we all have the capacity for joy and pain.  Few among us enjoy being miserable. Most of us want to be happy, comfortable and safe.  In general, we all want to survive and thrive.  We may have different ideas about what will make that happen, but the goal is still the same.  Survival is an instinct we share with every other living thing on the planet.

Yet each of us is also unique.  We come in different shapes and sizes.  No two humans are exactly alike, even identical twins.  Our ages might be similar, yet we can still be at different stages of our lives.  We come from different backgrounds experiencing varied ways of viewing the world.  We might even come from the same family and still have dissimilar viewpoints. How often have you recalled an incident from the past with a sibling or other family member and found that your memory of what happened is totally different from theirs? Both of you might have been present at the same time and place yet your perceptions of the event were different.  There’s a clue:  it’s all about perception.  As the saying goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

Of course, there are ways in which perceptions can cross a dangerous line, especially when a focus or belief becomes so narrow and fixed that other ideas, no matter how rational, simply can’t penetrate.  But my point here is not to preach or point out all of the ways in which humans treat each other badly. I don’t think any of us needs any reminders of those things.  Instead I’d rather see us all at least try to focus on ways in which we are all similar.

Again, it’s all about perception.  Rather than viewing our differences with fear, envy, self-righteousness or self-deprecation, maybe we can try celebrating our individual uniqueness while still recognizing that we are all fallible human beings.  Of course, it would be ideal if everyone treated each other that way.  None of us has any real control over how anyone else views the world.  In fact, we often have little control over the circumstances in which find ourselves. But no matter where we’re at or what we’re facing, we can always change our perception.  It might not be easy, but it’s always possible.

The problems of the world may be overwhelming, but if we each make our own contribution to perception improvement there’s no telling what effect it might have.  My own small attempt at this is to provide a judgment-free zone in all of my classes.  No matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like, your choice in partners, your beliefs, your physical abilities or dis-abilities, you will always be welcome in any of my classes.  We’re all seeking the same thing – to be healthy and to feel good about ourselves – even if we look differently while we’re doing it.  No judging allowed. We can each move in whatever way works for us as individuals while still enjoying the fact that we are all moving together. Everyone does whatever they can do to the best of their ability.  And if you’re reading this but can’t come to one of my classes, seek out a judgment-free zone near you.  It might take a little effort, but I’ll bet there is one somewhere near you.  There’s nothing like moving your body to help remind you that good feelings are still possible in our troubled world.