We have written quite a bit on the blog about competition (see Tracy’s The Competitive Feminist) and the idea that in endurance and lifting sports you don’t have to view others as your competition. Instead, you can aim to get better, to achieve a PR, and to be better than the athlete you were yesterday. In this way competition is about self improvement, not about besting others. You’re your own competition. And that sounds lovely. It can make racing fun even for people who don’t think of themselves as competitive. I identified my past self as my competition in the fittest by fifty challenge. You see this idea reflected in the slogans below.
But there are at least two problems with this idea that you’re your own competition, lovely as it is.
First, this isn’t true for all sports. While some sports consist in individual effort and you can make a choice to compare yourself to others or to your earlier efforts, in other sports there’s only the comparison between you and others. Weight lifting is a clear case of measuring your individual performance. How much did you bench?What’s your max deadlift? You can consciously choose to focus your concern on comparing yourself to others of the same age and size or to focus on personal bests and getting stronger over time.
Other sports can come in different flavours. Consider cycling, just because it’s the sport I know best. In a bike race that’s a time trial you can compare your pace over a certain distance to past efforts on that course, but in a road race there’s a lot of interactive strategy. What matters in a road race, the only thing that matters, is your relative place in the race. Team sports are like this too. You can’t compare your soccer performance this year to yours last year because you’re part of a team playing against other teams. The interaction matters.
But these problems aren’t the ones I’m really interested in today though I do have a special interest in the question of whether sports that involve interpersonal strategy are more interesting, more complex than ones that just measure individual effort and fitness. I like sports that include a place for “skill, cunning, and guile.” I have a soft spot for interactive sports of the sort that game theorists can model. I don’t go as far as my partner who declares endurance sports as dull as watching paint dry. I’m sure I’ll write more about this later. I teach sports ethics and I’m interested in some of the definitional issues. What makes some activities sports and others not? Can we rule out as sports those activities that a lack a “game” element? (Interested? Go read When is a sport not a sport? by Wayne Norman.)
The question that interests me today is competing against your past self and losing. That’s sad but it happens. And here’s the very sad part. It will happen to all of us. At some point we stop getting stronger and faster. We get weaker and we slow down. Tracy and I have both commented that our recent spurt of fitness activities have been extra motivating because we’re adult onset athletes. There are no high school sports trophies gathering dust in our closets. Even the relativized notion of competition–competing only against oneself–can be too demanding. Suppose I could average 32 km/hr in a time trial at 30, do you think I’ll still be able to do that at 60? Probably not.
So while the idea of competing only against your past self seems like a more gentle form of competition, in many ways it’s not. There is a time when it starts to be kinder and gentler to compare your performance to the performance of people your own age rather than to the performance of your younger, fitter self. I’ve watched friends, former competitive athletes, struggle with this. Sometimes they switch sports–from rowing to cycling–and sometimes they move on to a less competitive version of the activity–from bike racing to long distance touring. Comparing yourself to your younger self–whether it’s your 5 km time, your hair colour, the number on the scale, or your max bench–can certainly lead to sadness.
So is there a better motivational saying that reflects this? Suggestions anyone?