The Joy of Competition

by Eric Sharpe

To proselytize the benefits of athletic competition feels somewhat trite.  Dedicating an article to the benefits of competition and the competitive spirit demands a lacking in originality, and by default, must come across to both the converted and the doubtful as feeling hackneyed if not outright cheesy.  The flag waving cheerleading of the benefits of competition and the mountains of celebrations for success can tend to wash the very message intended by such glorification.  Further, the importance of athletic competition in our society has resulted in a backlash of somewhat well placed concern that the goal of winning dulls the human spirit as the obvious must be seen:  In a true competition, there is only one winner… and a family of so-called losers.  And with this sentiment in many circles, everyone now gets a trophy.


To begin with such a build-up also demands the grandiose “however…” rebuttal.  And here it comes.  Amongst the universe of cliché’s about the joy of competition, a few central messages ring true.  Because our culture seems to be losing grasp on the truly beneficial culture that competition creates, these messages deserve a fresh look in order to remind the competitor and the arm-chair naysayer alike, why we compete. Competition certainly holds at its core the goal of winning, but the foundations of it are far stronger than the glory of being number one.  And truly, it seems, nowhere are those foundations on display more than in Montana.  Montana features more competitions per capita than just about any other state.  Nearly every competition has as its goal, not the feature of victory, but the feature of participation, family, and community.


The Common Struggle

Jesse Owens, one of America’s greatest Olympic Athletes, pointed to one of the most fundamental values of competition: “Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition.  Awards become corroded, friendships gather no dust.” The common struggle of preparing for and then competing in an athletic event forges relationships bound by a unique understanding of that struggle, and encapsulates the “human struggle” itself.


In 1979, Chris Brasher wrote in a London newspaper about competing in the New York Marathon words that apply across the ages: “To believe this story you must believe that the human race be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible.” Perhaps the most valuable aspect of competition is that story of how it can bind us together.


In interviewing Kelly Lillie, Development Coordinator at the Billings YMCA, about the Montana Marathon, I discovered she and Kim Kaiser, the Y’s CEO, had recently participated in a Spartan competition, a difficult obstacle course -style sport that is rapidly growing.  I asked them, why is competing important? “For me it’s the motivation” says Kim. “Work is crazy busy, you just kinda get in your routine.”  With that, she was feeling a need to set a goal, one that would push her to really prepare and get herself out of her work-weary routine.  After a 15 week training period with friends, she took on the Spartan race in Big Fork.  “The Spartan is not just a competition, it is a culture that creates a sense of belonging.”  Kim said they were encouraged by everyone and told, “If you see a Spartan in need, help a Spartan.  If they need a boost over the wall, give ‘em a boost.” Though a rigorous competition, Kelly imparted that she “compete[s] for the comradery – I feed off the environment.  Everyone encourages each other whether you are passing them or being passed on the course.”


Community and competition are amongst the core of American culture.  However, they need not be mutually exclusive.



In a article, Bob Kelsoe wrote: “Some of my most memorable experiences as an athlete have come after the age of 40. [Competition] has also given my family unique opportunities to bond… Having [my sons] in my corner while I competed was something I will never forget.  It was a moment that most fathers and sons will never experience.  That’s what counts.”  The support system within a family is revealed (and sometimes tested) when a competitor begins to train.  For some, it’s not always there, but when it is, it is of immeasurable value.  Watching your family sacrifice their time and eagerly giving their support toward your athletic efforts is a reinforcing energy of just what you mean to them. Competition can serve to strengthen family bonds.


The American Spirit

Without launching into a history lesson, let’s just conclude the obvious: competition is woven into the fabric of America.  Yes, overbearing parents and hard driving coaches attempting to gain lost glory through their protégés give competition a bad name.  But the spirit of competition which permeates our culture is a good thing.  It is a pure thing.


So many other countries indeed demand rather than ask of their athletes on the national and international stage.  But for Americans, it’s a bit different. An anonymous post on “” sums this up:  “American dominance in so many sports has to do with internal motivation. American coaches do everything they can to make both training and competition fun rather than an obligation. That is the key for developing elite athletes who want to continue training after formal schooling is done.”


Competition is not vindictive nor is it de facto training or rehearsal for kids to learn how to assert dominance over others in life.  Competition is at the heart of who we are and the result is the tremendous innovation, inventiveness, and courage to defy the odds often attributed to our nation’s spirit.  Well, it is.  In an age where such things are seen as arrogance and to be apologized for, we need to be reminded that this spirit has brought us to where we are in the world.


The Experience Before the Experience

For many, having the goal of competing in an event is far more valuable than the event itself.  Winning is not the goal – the simple act of competing is.  By having a competitive event as a clear goal, formalized by an organization, the preparation for that event becomes the result. Often, an athlete feels that sense of great accomplishment at the end of training before the competition even begins.  They made it!  They did all the hard work.  The training is done.  In this, the competition becomes the celebration of the success.  Cool.


Additionally, by training for a competition, an athlete becomes a student of their sport.  By learning through training, an athlete has gained a sum of experiences and knowledge they could not have imagined. This knowledge is eminently transferrable to every aspect of their lives:  pushing past physical pain (the good type of pain that is) challenges perceived limits;  expanding the boundaries of those perceived physical limits tends to make people stronger – mentally;  challenges in life seem less challenging when one can think back and realize what they overcame to prepare for a competition.


The Humbling Experience

For those competitors whose true goal is victory, another set of benefits come with competing. A victory at the end of a hard fought race or game is a feeling that seems boundless. Victory is an internal elation fueled by the external acknowledgement that there was no one else better than you that day.  Learning what it really means to be humble can often only be learned from winning.  But defeat is just as valuable.  Defeat is a teacher we have all had to learn from, but the power of it can only be measured by what is learned.  Some do not learn from it.  But many take lessons of how to train harder, better, and smarter.  Many learn that the competitive spirit may be reinforced by victory, but it is bolstered by defeat.  Many learn the lesson of being a better person for their loss by experiencing the feeling of a challenge they have yet to meet.  Perhaps they may never meet it, but to continue to struggle for victory is what many eventually learn is the greatest victory they can achieve, even if they never finish first.


The Joy of Competition

The 2016 Rio Olympics featured many great moments.  The epitome of the joy of competition might have been best captured in the images of twin sisters Anna and Lisa Hahner from Germany crossing the finish line of the marathon (pictured above).  They got 81st and 82nd place.  But they finished an Olympic marathon – together.  The pure joy of competing and completing simply can’t be conveyed here. But the impact on the observer can be. A fraternity sponsored Special Olympic event had tremendous impact on its observers.  From the Phi Kappa website, member Jon Blanton’s response to witnessing the smile of a competitor’s face encompasses the concept: “It was joy. He was the happiest kid in the world. For one day, these athletes feel like any other person who wants to be an athlete.”  This sentiment could apply to anyone.


And it is not just the kids.  There is a revolution happening in the world in the realm of Master’s competition: “it’s not uncommon to see athletes who are competing into their 60’s or 70’s.  Athletes all over the world are returning to competition decades after they retired from the sports they love.  Today, there are Masters and veterans competitions in swimming, track, cycling, wrestling, to name a few.” (from Bob Kelsoe’s article)


The joy of competition expresses a host of experiences and benefits.  To the observer, it appears to be a huge smile resulting from crossing the finish line. But that smile is the sum of the immeasurable number of benefits the competitor has gained from competing.  Supporters of a competitor share that smile too, and even reveal the benefit of witnessing it in their own grins.


That is why MoFi (Montana Fitness Magazine) dedicated this article to the benefits of competition and the competitive spirit.  We need to be reminded of what is good about the spirit of competition. If it was lacking in originality, and felt a little saccharine, you can offset it with a good bitter cup of coffee and some news about the current state of politics.

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