I spent Christmas this year with my younger brother and his family. The day after Christmas, my oldest nephew, Victor (age 5), decided it was a good day to show his uncle how to race miniature cars on his brand new electric race track.
We sat down together on the carpet next to the race track, and I listened while he enthusiastically explained everything he’d already learned in one whole day of racing miniature cars.
He went over the track foot by foot, telling me how fast to race my car at each point. He even speculated about what forces were involved in keeping the cars on the track, and although he didn’t quite get the forces right, I found it interesting that he recognized something was at work there and that it demanded an explanation.
What most interested me, however, were his comments on the psychology of competing. “Focus”, he admonished me in his most serious little voice, “on your car to get more better. Don’t focus on what Al (his cousin) is doing. Don’t focus on what I am doing. When you focus on what you are doing, you get more better. That’s a secret, Uncle Paul. Don’t tell Curtis (his younger brother)!”
Of course, his actual speech was a lot longer than that because he repeated himself umpteen times. But you get the idea. One secret of competing well is to focus on your own performance, and what you can do to improve it, rather than to worry too much about what your competition is doing. As my nephew explained to me, he wasn’t getting any “more better” racing against his cousin Al until he quit watching Al’s car, and instead focused on his own car.
I’m not sure how comprehensive his advice is — there’s a lot more to competing than just the bit he now knows at age 5 — but his advice still struck me as at least somewhat useful to anyone of any age.
If you believe the ancient Greeks, the point and purpose of competition is to bring out your excellence. Or, as we moderns would say, the purpose is to inspire you to do your best — regardless of whether you win or loose. Of course, you can’t very well be doing your best if you are focused on imitating the other guy, if you are too narrowly focused on winning, or if you are too afraid of loosing. As the Gold Medalist Andrea Lawrence once said:
Competition can be a very intense experience and a very rewarding one, or it can be enormously destructive. External pressure, whether it’s exerted by a coach, a school, a ski club, or a country, is what can make it a negative thing. When they use you to satisfy their need to succeed, when they impose their value system on you, then competition isn’t personally rewarding anymore…. You’re either a winner or a loser…. There’s no way in my mind that you can divide humanity into those two categories.
The Greeks knew competition should never be used as an excuse to “divide humanity into those two categories.” Their attitude is not entirely understood by many people today, but they were somewhat more inclined to praise excellence — to praise someone doing their personal best — than they were inclined to praise mere winning or loosing.
It seems to me my nephew has perhaps taken a huge step towards learning how to compete in a manner that will long benefit him, provided he stays true to the lesson he’s learned this season and he builds on it.