Competition and the Non-Competitive Competitor

When we think of competition, we generally imagine people engaging in a struggle to determine who is best at a particular activity. This might include sports, academics, wealth, or even physical aesthetics. This competitiveness is overt and observable. The competitors, generally, are in a position where they are judged and evaluated by others and the ratings are made known to all.

There is, however, another individual whose competitiveness is not obvious to everyone outside themselves. These people compare and compete within the confines of their own thoughts. On the outside they often appear disinterested and uninvolved. Inside, however, they can be obsessively competitive, but they are too insecure to take chances. I describe this individual as The Non-competitive Competitor.

Almost invariably the Non-Competitive Competitor feels inadequate. He fears being laughed at and humiliated by others, who he imagines are judging him.

An example of this type of competitiveness can be seen in the case of a nine year old boy who is about to try out for Little League baseball. He approaches the ball field with his brand new glove tucked under his arm. Instead of walking out onto the field, he stands behind the fence, as the other boys warm up. He watches for a while, then turns, and, with his head down, starts walking home.

If we were to ask a group of spectators who they would choose as the most competitive kid on the field, someone might point out the shortstop. ("Look at that kid hustle!") Someone else might focus on the center fielder. ("Look how aggressive he is!")

The psychologist would disagree. He would say the most competitive child that day was the child who walked away. When he stood at the fence, he compared himself to the other kids and decided that he was not good enough to play with them and, therefore, he decided to walk away before he made a fool of himself. His competitiveness was so intense that it stopped him even before he actually tried.

If no one stopped this boy and he went home, his chances of ever playing baseball would probably be slim to none. If someone, however, did stop him and said, "Hey, kid, you feel pretty lousy right now, don't you? You compared yourself to the other kids and decided that you stink. Look at the short stop. He looks pretty good, doesn't he? Well, let me tell you about him.

When he was three years old his father started playing ball with him. How does someone play ball with a three year old? His father got a ball and they sat on the floor and rolled the ball to each other. They didn't play every day but they played often enough for the boy to learn to enjoy playing ball with his dad.

When he was four, he and his father started throwing a volley ball to each other. Later, when he was five, his father got him a soft ball and a mitt. The father started throwing the ball over the boy's head so he could learn to catch fly balls, or on the ground so he could learn to field grounders. When he was six, his father got him a regular baseball and a bat, so he learned to hit pitches. When he was seven, he started playing ball with the kids on the street. At eight, he was playing sandlot ball. There he is at age nine. Looks pretty good, doesn't he?

Tell me something, kid. How long have you been playing ball?"

The boy would have to admit, "I never played before."

"Oh, you never played ball before and now you're comparing yourself to someone who's been playing ball for six years. If you had played for six years, you would probably be able to play like the short stop. You just didn't learn the skills. Now, if you want to learn to play, you have to play catch up.

Whether the boy decided to learn to play baseball or not, that conversation would have major significance. The boy would realize that there was nothing wrong with him. It was only that he hadn't acquired a particular skill. He was now free to learn to play baseball or not, but there was nothing deficient about him.

This is true of all acquired skills. If we are encouraged and taught certain skills, we can become reasonably proficient. If, on the other hand, we are discouraged from engaging in activities and practicing these skills, we can feel inadequate and vulnerable.

No one would argue this in regard to certain skills. We encourage our children to practice, practice, practice when it comes to playing a musical instrument. We may wince when they produce their first squeaky notes, but we encourage them to keep at it. Eventually, the practice pays off.

Social skills, too, need to be practiced. We encourage our children to say 'please' and 'thank you'. We lead by example. We encourage appropriate behavior. We want our children to be respectful of the rights of others and we want them to make choices that show that they have self-respect.

Learning to express feelings is also learned by example and by instruction. Children need to be taught to express their feelings within certain parameters. Like learning the finer, more subtle movement required to play baseball, so a child needs to learn to express a range of feelings in ways that comply with societal norms. Armed with these skills, the child can engage others without fear.

copyright 2007 - Dr. Gerard Bomse - All Rights Reserved - duplication and re-publishing prohibited without consent from Dr. Bomse (