Only Losers Think Everyone Should Win: Thoughts on Competition from a Graduate of the Billy Martin School of Sportsmanship

Melissa and I were watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics the other night when an ad came on the television, that said something to the effect of, “Right now, everyone’s tied.*” Melissa approved of the ad. I did not. And we began talking a little bit about how this was reflective of our different views on competition. She likes the idea that for a moment everyone’s tied. Nobody has lost. We’re all here for the warm-and-fuzzies of participating in the Olympics. While that emotion is certainly a nice one, it just doesn’t ring true to me and I suspect for any of the athletes participating in the Games. Every single one of them came to win — even the guy who is fated to come in twenty-fifth in a field of twenty-five believes somewhere in his gut that he could come out of nowhere and shock the world (his brain knows better). I think the concept of “everyone’s tied” only works as being representative of the hope the everyone, even the Moroccan skier, could be a winner.

But this raised the larger question of how to talk to the kids about competition. I was a very competitive kid. Like, waaaay too competitive when I really got into it. When I was 10 or 11 I got called-out for tagging up at third base before the ball had been caught and I flipped-out to such a degree that even Billy Martin would have been saying, “Whoa, calm down there kid, just a Little League game.” Even writing about it now, I get mad, because I had led-off the inning with a triple and I know, and I mean KNOW FOR A CERTAINTY, that I tagged up properly. That, plus the teenage umpire had a brother on the other team and I think that might have influenced the call. It’s been over twenty-five years and I’m still pissed.

Part of growing-up (and a hard part at-that) has been learning how to positively channel that competitive energy without going over the edge to the dark side. I’ve tried a couple of different approaches. One was to completely remove myself from those situations where I get too competitive. I don’t play video games, I don’t play racquetball or tennis because eventually I’ll get so into-it, that I’ll forget I was supposed to be having fun. Or, if I participate I have to consciously not care about winning — which usually means I lose, also no fun (plus the people you’re playing against can usually tell, and that’s no fun for them either). I’ve yet to really be able to reach what should be my goal, to try my hardest and be happy with that.

So, I admit that I am perhaps not the best role model for my kids when it comes to competition. I’d like to be as zen about it as Melissa seems to be, but I think that the desire to compete and win is an irrepressible evolutionary trait of men (and many women). Every time I think, “Maybe now I’m old enough and wise enough and mellow enough not to lose myself too much in a game” (particularly a physical one) I find that eventually, my temper and grumpy sportsmanship surfaces. Just recently I lost my temper playing Wii Fit Rhythm Parade. Let me repeat that: I lost my temper playing a game in which my Mii was dressed like a drum major marching to a beat. I thought I did pretty good by only lightly tossing the Wii remote when it was done, but apparently I didn’t toss it as lightly as I intended. Sorry ’bout that, Mel.

But here’s the thing — it wasn’t my parents who either through intent or neglect made me this way. In fact, they were usually pretty horrified by my behavior when I would go all Lou Pinella on some poor 15-year-old who only thought he was helping-out when he agreed to umpire his brother’s Little League game (NEAR-SIGHTED, CROSS-EYED MORON!). So, does anything I have to say really have any chance of influencing how my kids behave in the thick of competition? I hope so. I can already see some of myself in the Wolvog’s fits when he gets frustrated at a game.

And the Olympics is probably the best example of how to conduct oneself with intensity in-competition and grace in-defeat. So we’ll be watching with the kids and maybe they’ll pick-up on the fact that when you try your hardest and still lose, you can do so with pride and learn from your loss. But I also fear that they’ll pick-up on the truth that winning can be a drug, and when you’re longing for it, you are capable of behaving in ways that you won’t always be proud of. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to teach myself. Because I truly do believe that how you play really is more important than if you win or lose…

But I still think the concept of everyone being tied is kind of lame.

This is what he said.  Click here to find out what she said.

* If you know what ad I’m talking about please email me (notforprofitdad [at] gmail dot-com) because it is driving me crazy that I can’t remember and I’ve wasted way too much time on YouTube trying in vain to find it.


Filed under He Said She Said, Man Stuff, Parenting

12 responses to “Only Losers Think Everyone Should Win: Thoughts on Competition from a Graduate of the Billy Martin School of Sportsmanship

  1. a

    I can’t condone the highly competitive sore loser behavior, but I also cannot stand the reduction of competition to “everyone wins so no one loses.” I think competition is a great motivator for people to try harder. Many, maybe even most, people are not self-motivators – they need an external force. I’m not a competitive person, generally. But, for the most part, when I decide to do/get something, I generally succeed, because I will work hard. If I don’t succeed, I can accept that with good grace, unless (like your baseball game) there are extenuating circumstances which means that things were unfairly set before I even entered the competition.


  2. After reading your’s and Mel’s post I’d have to say I’m somewhere in the middle. I might not be as competetive as you are, but I DO want to win, when I compete in something (or a team/sportsman I root for wins a competition). I know that sometimes it’s not even up to you, if you win or lose, it might just be to due to having better/worse weather conditions than your competitors.
    Losing sucks. Especially when you did your best. And it sometimes even sucks, when you didn’t do your best and shouldn’t rightfully have won anyway. I guess, I still have to work on my ability to lose graceful. I most probably wouldn’t have thrown my Wii remote across the room, but chances are I would have been sulking. More or less openly 🙂


  3. Mel

    I like what “A” just said and I think that’s very true about me–I am a self-motivator. And I’m not really motivated by anyone else but myself. Hence my lack of competition?


  4. I’m a flincher by nature. Sports that feature teams going after each other make me cringe. I gravitate towards the individual sports events. For some reason it feels ok to root for one person because, really one lone skater out in the rink is competing against his own version of best.

    I am going to totally SUCK at dealing with sports and my son. Totally going to be the About a Boy mom and I have no idea how to reroute that train…sigh


  5. I just love the last line.


  6. Ellen

    Winning is very important, but I think many athletes define “winning,” as an internal victory rather than solely a medal. For example, I disagree that the Moroccan skier really thinks he’ll stand on the podium while his anthem plays. It’s probably more like in Rocky (ignoring all but the first movie), when Rocky realizes that, despite all of his training and desire, he can’t possibly beat the heavyweight champion of the world. He decides to redefine victory and says he’ll go the distance, forcing the judges choose Apollo, but not allowing Apollo to win in a knock out. I think athletes can still be competive and far-reaching without seeing a gold medal as their lone goal.


  7. Bob

    Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser. If you’re not going to try to win, what’s the point of playing the game?

    You sister-in-law and I were playing catch and I criticized her for throwing like a girl. She brought me up by pointing out that she was a girl. Whoops, sorry. She was also the one who I tried to teach to tackle me by driving her head through my body. I think she was around 5 at the time and her mother was not impressed.


  8. LJ

    To that end, the NFL has a commercial that airs after the super bowl each year or sometime before the season starts about how everyone has a chance to win at that point. Which in football, with a salary cap, makes sense. There is generally more parity, and a team can win one year and suck it the next. That’s football though.

    In most other sports, especially the Olympics, people aren’t going in even. It’s truly the case that some people who are competing are just happy to be there.

    I’m also very competitive, sometimes to the point where I won’t attempt something where I know I won’t be any good at it (and not in a so bad, I’m good, gutterball bowling, kinda way).

    But we all love a good Cinderella story. And who is to say that any given person won’t be that one who makes it big? It’s about finding the balance of encouraging greatness without instilling a fear of failure. And if someone can teach me that lesson, I’m all ears… 🙂


  9. Bea

    The truth, as usual, is in the middle.

    There’s nothing wrong with competitiveness per se, and a lot right with it, and I think it’s a matter of making sure you don’t have an inappropriate amount of self-worth (or other-person-worth) tied up in any particular moment (which one of you talked about self-worth?). Especially because the playing field (slash umpire) is not always going to be fair, or, in fact, is never really going to be fair, when you think about it. It’s not really fair that some people are born, eg, taller and therefore more suited to basketball than others, is it? What’s a little short-sighted umpiring compared to the unevenness of nature? At least there’s a chance that an umpire could err on your side another time.

    However, I do also think it’s possible to enjoy losing, depending on the situation and opponents involved – eg that baseball movie… Madonna… you know the one, or where it really is an honour just to be able to compete. Or, for that matter, to enjoy winning even when you know your opponent lost on purpose, for similar reasons – that the outcome – that is, the winning or losing – is not the whole of the game. Some of it is definitely about experiences and relationships.

    On being self-motivated and whether that decreases competitiveness: the way I read Mel (ha, this is such a limb, drawing this from a couple of posts and some blog archives) it’s not so much a difference in terms of where the motivation is coming from (internal v external), but what the goal is. Being faster etc is not the ultimate goal, but being included/accepted is (and perhaps also doing your best, or whatever, which might basically be the same thing as having self-motivation, I guess, huh, I think I lost my point. Nah, I like my view of the cathedral better. I win!).



  10. My son, 6, just started in a YMCA basketball league. The league focuses on skills, sportsmanship, and having fun. Hence, they don’t keep score.

    Know what, though? Every kid on the team, at any point during every game so far, has known what the score is.

    So yes, I think some of this competitive spirit is hard-wired and important to our physical survival/evolution.

    Perhaps as we, as a species, move higher on Maslow’s hierarchy, Melissa’s more zen approach is necessary to our survival, or at least to avoid our mutual destruction.

    I more like you, btw. Except that as a line-leader in high school marching band, I’m good at Rhythm Parade.


  11. JPF

    Spoken like a true caveman, er, sports fan.


  12. JPF

    Winning is ephemeral. Only loss persists.


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