I have talked with friends about the contests and games staged for children these days and the verdict seems to be that children are routinely shielded from loss and encouraged to believe that everyone wins. Loss is cloaked with badges, ribbons, and medals for showing “spirit” and simply participating. It was a much harsher climate for people who “also ran” when I was a child. You either won or you didn’t. I don’t want to dismiss the value of recognizing the importance of all of the participants because I do think their contributions are important. When I competed, I never dismissed my teammates who never placed. In fact, I was almost awe struck by people who were committed to the team and to coming to practice but who never had any hope of winning or even coming close to it. Thus, I identified with Bill Clinton’s fascination with his daughter Chelsea’s commitment to dance in much the same way. In a review of Taylor Branch’s biography of Clinton, Robert Franklin, esq. writes this about the former President:

Any father can be proud of his daughter, but Branch’s account suggests something more: that Bill looks up to Chelsea and finds the self he never managed to become. She was a source of hope when he was bitter, of perspective when he was self-pitying. Clinton liked doing what he was good at but marvels over Chelsea’s devotion to ballet, how her feet bled after practice, how she worked hard at it because she loved it regardless of how good she was at it. “I’ve always admired that,” Clinton says. “I’ve wondered whether I could ever stick with something for its own sake.”

I am sympathetic to Clinton’s reflections because I have often looked at devoted people who continue to participate without hope of glory and thought the same thing: Could I continue to do this for its own sake? 

When it came to sports, the answer was a resounding “no, I could not continue doing this for its own sake.” There was no other model by which to play sports as far as I was concerned. I knew that if you did not win, you did not matter and I could not accept the consolation prizes.

The real Vernon Earl “The Pearl” Monroe in action.

When I saw Spike Lee’s film He Got Game, I thought he captured an authentic experience of athletic competition that resonates with what I take to be a realization that many competitors face: the truth. The moment in the film occurs when Jesus Shuttlesworth confronts his father Jake about naming him after Christ and learns that his name was actually inspired by black people in North Philly calling Earl Monroe Jesus because he was “the truth.” I have only seen this movie once when it first came out back in 1998 and I never forgot that line. I remember it because I knew what it meant to encounter “the truth” as an athlete. The only equivalent that I can think of for non-athletes is of  hearing Bobby Brown being asked about he and his wife being talented singers. In responding to the question about then wife Whitney Houston, Brown said, “naw, I can sing, but my wife, she can sang.” Sangin’ is for real jack. There are people who are so good that it just takes your breath away. And you know with every fiber of your being that no matter how hard you workout and remain committed, those people are competing on a level that you cannot attain. For me, it was an experience that made me rethink my goals for that arena. For a long time, I could pass for being among the really good ones but eventually, I knew the time was quickly coming to pass when I would have to move on. Unlike Chelsea Clinton, I decided that I would need to find a place where my hard work and dedication might contribute more to the history of what was taking place.

I left athletics with a profound understanding about the dynamics of functioning in a competitive environment. It was clear that there was always a tension between wanting the team to be better and fearing being displaced by “the truth.” People were always moving about under a heavy mantel of insecurity. Relief from this insecurity was generally temporary–it held until the next contest or the next season when the battle for supremacy would recur. When I entered other spaces where people wanted to talk about them in terms of competitiveness, I had a very solid vantage point from which to judge. In most cases, what people called competitive I could tolerate because they seemed to be imposing terms onto a space where they were superfluous. Competitiveness in the athletic arena is required. In those other spaces, I could opt out of whatever the competition was for and invent my own system of meaning that had value.

I prefer to cooperate rather than to compete. I enjoy getting along with people for the sake of a common goal rather than trying to fight with them in a terrain where everything valuable is scarce. I learned to monitor my own feeling that succeeding required a construction of scarcity. For example, when I consider conversations now among peers about college admissions, I pay attention to heightened concerns about enrolling in particular schools. While I think it’s fine to rank your top choices, I grow concerned when I hear people talk about their world ending when they are not accepted into what I call brand name schools. There are plenty of colleges and they accept students by the thousands. I am not convinced that being denied admission into your favorite brand is the end of the world. A well-known school can certainly provide the structure and the demand for excellence that should prompt one to excel but if you are interested in excellence, you can make that your goal in whatever program you enter. Too, the brand name should not take away your desire to create a system of meaning for yourself.

I also learned from my time as a competitive athlete that I preferred to surround myself with my betters rather than to exclude them because I felt threatened by them in some way. I think that my intellectual and spiritual growth depends on being surrounded by people who offer a model for being intellectually and spiritually strong. I am far from being the smartest person that I know; or the most patient, or compassionate, or thoughtful. I have a great admiration for the people in my life. They all bring something to the table. They offer skills and habits of being that I want to emulate and that help to ensure my humility. In athletics, a better athlete may replace you, but in life outside of athletics, someone with better skills can enhance you. I’m not so sure that this message is being conveyed in our efforts to ensure young people’s self-esteem. My feeling is that the way we’re encouraging self-esteem in young people teaches them to believe that they shouldn’t recognize their betters. It’s as if we’re encouraging them to think that in most cases, they are just as good at everything as everyone else–but that’s simply not true. Take my son and my next door neighbor’s daughter, who was born on the same day, as an example. Now, I think my son is a sharp little dude, but if I’m honest, my kid is not going to win an elocution contest today. His L’s sound like W’s so he says things like, “Why are you waughing at me.” While I think he sounds just as cute as could be, he wouldn’t be the first choice if CBS came looking for people to do voiceover work on 60 Minutes. My neighbor’s little girl, though, might have a shot at the gig. Her speech is perfectly free of tongue frustrations. She is the superior elocutionist at this point. Fortunately for all of us, we understand that there can be more than one child who can clearly articulate themselves. I’m happy to have someone in my son’s peer group who is close by so that we can take measure of his progress. She’s also one of three children in her household and she goes to daycare. I like it when my son plays with her because then he can develop his social skills by spending time with someone who is clearly so good at it. Instead of feeling threatened by our neighbor’s daughter and her facility, we are grateful to have her in our lives.

I think that it is a very good idea to have people around you who are better than you at any number of things. As one of my dear friends likes to point out, they will make you a better version of yourself.