Subject: True Competition is getting thrown under the bus in the Olympic Men’s High Jump
Dear sports journalism heros, Robert, Weldon, and Jon, I will try to be brief as I know you are very busy right now. However, your platform is so much greater than mine, and I believe this message is something coaches, athletes – heck – CEO’s, and principals – need to understand about competition.
My show, starting at 28:11, speaks to the topic of true competition as it relates to Barshim and Tamberi’s high jump tie. I know it’s a big ask, but the 25-30 minutes, starting there, of me responding to a major market sports talk show host on this topic is probably my finest podcasting work – a true moment of preaching – and I’d love for your response to it (as I greatly admire and respect your advocating for stories, sports, and principles which extend beyond the track)…
A longer article on this topic can be found here as well.
Below are some of my thoughts in written form – feel free to use on your shows or on your website as you’d like…you don’t have to cite me either…I don’t mind either way!
Many are celebrating the tie between Barshim and Tamberi as the ultimate demonstration of the Olympic spirit. I am saddened by this, and believe the reaction is indicative of where we – coaches, athletes, and society in general -have gone wrong when it comes to competition and success. Definitions matter.
Competition is derived from the latin root ‘petere,’ which means “to strive with,” and ‘com’ – which means ‘together.’ Competition literally means, “to strive together.” A book which should be required reading for anyone in leadership is True Competition by Shields and Bredemeier. They explain how true competitioncares about true success and the enjoyment from striving towards it. True success, defined as John Wooden put it: the satisfaction that comes from knowing you gave 100% effort to maximize your full potential. A contest – with winners and losers – is simply the structure needed to foster an environment where competitors push each other towards their greatest versions of themselves. This is what coaches, athletes, and leaders MUST understand…but apparently do not (as evidenced by the celebration of the tie in the high jump).
Decompetition, the evil twin of competition, cares only about conquest – winning at all costs. When most members of society say, “Competition is bad,” what they really are referring to is decompetition. Sadly, when two athletes interrupt a competition to settle for shared golds, what they actually are promoting is decompetition AND a different definition of success. That is to say, they are saying that the only thing that really matters in sport is what medal you have around your kneck. Let me explain. (as a side note, this is not a beratement of the athletes, but the rules and rulemakers who allowed for this to happen. After all, who in their right minded wouldn’t have accepted co-golds!? As I brought up in my podcast – the 5k athletes should stop after a lap and say, “Hey, we all decided we’d like to share 12 golds.”)
True competition needs a contest with winners and losers because it creates an environment whereby two parties can “strive together” towards true success. We see this all the time – in fact, we saw it in the Benjamin/Warholm race. The surface level goal of a gold medal led the two of them to bring out a greater excellence in each of them, one which allowed BOTH to reach a more foundational, ultimate goal than the actual medal color – the maximizing of their full potential.
When you eliminate the structure – either by giving everyone a trophy or, in this case, stopping the competition, you destroy the very arena where healthy, true competition can take place. Sure, they both got the surface level goal – a gold medal – but they were robbed of something else: the opportunity to push each other to greater heights (of course….in this case, they weren’t going higher, literally! They couldn’t, hence the tie. But, imagine the amazing drama, clutch moments, and final outcome they threw away. In the jump off, they weren’t going to go higher…but they were going to have to go deeper. And that’s all that really matters.)
When we celebrate everyone getting golds (I know ‘everyone’ didn’t get one…but the foundational concept is what is at stake here), what we are saying as a society, and the message we are sending kids, is this:
What matters IS the medal you have around your kneck. In fact, it matters so much, we should make sure everyone gets one.
Instead, we should be saying that the whole point of sports is the development of the skills which lead to true success – the maximizing of your potential – no matter what medal you end up with – so that you can go and be the best version of you and every other walk of life. Life has winners and losers. But the beauty of true competition is that BOTH winners and losers are actually winners because they have pushed themselves to their fullest.
As coaches, we want to give our athletes what is best for them. For this reason, we should be teaching and instilling athletes with the proper definition of success, guiding them in pursuing it through the preservation of healthy, true competition, and celebrating athletes who demonstrate these qualities, on and off the track.
It isn’t competition’s fault that we have a few bad apples who think sports is all about winning and losing, and we shouldn’t eliminate competition and celebrate athletes who chop it off at the knees just because some people have bad foundational philosophy of sport. We need to change the philosophy of competition, and it starts with every little club coach and mom and dad.
Warmest regards, Ryan Sederquist