I told my son I was signing up and he asked, “You think you can win?”
A few weeks ago a friend and I were discussing the the Ancient Greeks concept of Agon. Agon (plural is Agones) is taken from the word agein meaning to bring along or lead. Agones were contests and games like the Olympics that competitors offered up their hearts and souls to be a part of. The word became synonymous with “contest” or “struggle” and eventually became thought of the struggle of souls or of wills. It was growth and leadership.
I am not going to lie and say that I don’t like winning. I gloat when I can put an “X” on a triple letter box in Words with Friends. And trust me, if I beat you at a workout, I will let you know that I know. But I am convinced that the benefits of just competing are not found in the spoils of victory but as is said, “in pursuit of victory.” It is in the road trip, not the destination, that we find joy. Culturally,we admire victory. But personally, we learn from the struggle, win or lose.
"What would the world be without the agon -- the agonistics of one man against another -- to show everyone the order of precedence among men, just as no two other things on earth are alike? How could any of us alive know quality if competition and personal combat did not let all the world know who embodies excellence and who merely manages mediocrity?"
Psychologically, we draw such a strong connection between competing and winning and losing. We think winning is the positive outcome of competing and losing is the negative. Moreover, we think not coming in first place equals losing and I guess this is true when we look at placings as the outcome of competition.
But when we look at positive growth as the outcome the units of measurement are changed. Maybe it is time for a reframe of winning and losing. Winning may just be growth. It has nothing to do with placement. Even Odysseus had to recognize that monumental effort “embodies excellence.”
I don’t know if this is specific to us culturally as a nation or a species. I think it is relevant, however, as someone pointed out to me, MMA organizations in the US are called things like the Ultimate Fighting Championships, while major organizations in Japan were called “PRIDE” and “Dream.” One focus on victory. One on personal growth.
I knew when I fought, I wasn’t in line for a UFC Championship. I just wanted to see where I was, what I could do. When I run in races, I never expect to win the whole thing. Instead for me, competition is more about catching the person right in front of you, getting a little better with each step. Pass one runner and another challenge lies ahead. Get passed and you have to catch back up.
Several years ago, I was preparing for a fight and at the gym for my strength and conditioning session. I had a tough week of training and was worn out. My CrossFit coach at the time had programmed at team workout. In teams of two we had to complete a series of seven different things, alternating movements each time. I don’t remember all the movements but it started with a 500m row. One partner got to rest while the other worked. We had to complete five rounds. There was an odd number.
So my coach decided that all the other teams would race against me. I didn’t argue but I wasn’t really excited about doing twice the prescribed work. We got started and I remember I was ahead going into the second round. I worked back to the rower again and started pulling on it. I realized I was tired. I remember being angry as in “why do I have to do all the extra work?” I told myself I was overtraining, this was too much. I put down the handle and stopped rowing.
I don’t know how long I sat there sulking but it was long enough for me to get a good look at myself. I remember saying out loud, “You just quit. You better grab that handle and start pulling.” I remember hammering through the rest of that workout terrified. I was scared that somehow I had become a “quitter.” I have always worried that when it was really tough, a fight for my life on the street, a hard spot in my marriage, what if I quit. If it was a death match in the street, even quitting for a short moment could be catastrophic. I realized I had to train harder -- I wanted to train that out of me.
I don’t even remember if I won or lost or what. I remember the race was awesome. I remember being behind and catching up. I remember getting passed again and having to ask myself, “Is this as hard as you can go,” finding a little more and moving ahead. I remember spending the next several days contemplating my “quit” and vowing to find a way to make sure I don’t do it again. I have used the story as a coach with wrestlers numerous times and used the memory to motivate myself to push forward.
So I guess I do remember. I won.
The problem is we have spent so much time and energy focusing on scores and placings. I have a good friend that tells me she hates always coming in last on workouts and it is frustrating. She tells me I can’t understand as I never come in last all the time. And I can’t argue that (although I come in last more than she thinks), I don’t know how it feels. But I do know this, in chasing the person ahead of her, she may not get stronger than them, but she will be stronger than she ever thought she could be. Growth. Competition spurs that.
We have this idea that we should only compete if we can win, or even place high, and it is just not accurate. The reality is that we should compete because we can. We should compete because we should.
CrossFit founder Greg Glassman wrote, “It is our observation, that men will die for points.” And so will women. But I like to think that it is not the points we are willing to die for but the lessons learned while chasing them.
It is not a novel concept that sport is a metaphor for life. The highs and lows, victories and defeats. I am not sure, though, that it is accurate. Really, competition and sport are life. At a minimum it makes good practice. Nothing can beat you down like life, but a nasty workout comes close, and a little competition may be the motivation that pushes you through.
***My son tells people all the time that I am the strongest person in the world. I hear him and his sister discussing who could or couldn’t complete a certain task. The conversation is usually ended with,”Dad could.” The first time he saw me injured he was confused. He thinks dad is invincible.
So when he asked about the open and the games, I knew I had to be honest.
“You think you can win?”
Sign-up. Compete. You might win too.