Wednesday, February 24, 2016

About the Competitive Spirit

Let's talk about the competitive spirit.

I think of it as a process by which we find a place in our "tribe".

Competitive spirit is something we all generally have to one degree or another - even if it's to lament its existence.  Human beings are social animals, and one of the ways we learn to live together is through competitiveness.  We compete to have "rank" in our social circles or tribes.  What that means - how we compete - varies from group to group, culture to culture, age to age.

At its most basic level, one can consider the competitive spirit as the method we use to train to survive, as individuals and as a species. After all, escaping a violent situation alive is a "win", is it not?

Thus, we can easily spot this spirit in the martial arts world.

We hold tournaments where we compete to win awards in sparring and in forms. The combative sport arts have matches.  Competition - the need to strive to win things - is deeply ingrained in much of what we do.

Maybe we need a few exemptions.

Even in relatively non-competitive arts, we still have that spirit. For example, consider the psychological effect of ranking in the martial arts. Most of us who start with other people would resent it if he or she got promoted into a "higher" rank before we are, so we work as hard as our peers so we can progress together at the same rank.  We also compare ourselves to the higher ranks - we are competing with them, to match them... to be "better" than they are.

Some of the "my art is better than your art" braggadocio endemic to our community is also related to being competitive.

I'm all for fostering the competitive spirit - I'm pretty competitive myself!  I know, though, that the competitive spirit is a double-edged weapon.

Yes, him again.

On the one hand, competitiveness helps us achieve greater things in life.  It's a motivator for many of us to keep practicing, stay focused, and to acquire skill.  The energy of competitivenes, and the emotional thrill you get when you are successful - when you win - is hard to match in any other way.  Winning and losing helps us measure our skill or progess in something we care about.

On the other hand, without a lot of structure and rules and wisdom around it, competitiveness can be a destructive, hateful thing.  I'm not only talking about the jeers and taunts some "winners" give to "losers", as distasteful and harmful as that is (especially when parents do it in youth sports - there should be a special hell for those people).  In some circles talking "smack" and taunting people is what winners do.

Click here if you can't see the video.

It's also how we allow our competitive spirit to dominate our way of thinking.  So much so that we become so deeply connected and identified with how well we compete, that we allow winning and losing to define our self worth in general.

For example, Ronda Rousey says that after her loss to Holly Holm, she felt so bad she contemplated suicide.

Rousey's competitive spirit took her to the top of her profession, first American woman to medal in Judo (Bronze) and then the top of the UFC.  This is something we all admire and, for many of us, something that we would love to emulate.

Everyone knows that Rousey is an incredible martial artist and is one of the top people in her sport, male or female.  For some time, people speculated that she'd never lose and retire undefeated. Rousey apparently believed it, too.  Being Undefeated "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey, Best Female Fighter In The World, dominated her sense of who she is and her place in the world.

Rousey had so deeply identified with her unbeatable persona that when she inevitably lost a fight - and it was inevitable that she would - she believed her life no longer held any meaning.

I've seen some folks talking about how weak she is by admitting this, and how she should "butch up" as a result.  If you're talking or thinking that way, you need to have some damn empathy and understand that winning and losing had become, to Rousey, her ENTIRE WORLDVIEW.

Destroy YOUR worldview, your sense of personal self worth and who and what you are, and see how well YOU handle it before you criticize Rousey.



This is the negative, destructive side of the competitive spirit.  When you make it your primary motivation and to define yourself by how well you compete, you set yourself up to be emotionally and spiritually crushed when you eventually fail.

This is where that need for rules and structure and wisdom comes in, to harness the competitive spirit for growth and to balance this destructive downside.

Winning is not everything.  Indeed, the process of competing and losing usually teaches us more than actually winning anything ever can, as good as winning feels.  Valuable lessons - things that may save your life, much less win in a sporting match - are learned in losing.

Not just jiu jitsu, y'all.

Winning and losing does not, and should not, define who and what you are. Rousey is loved and cared for by her tribe - you and I at a distance and everyone who knows her personally - regardless of how she performs in the ring.  Even if she never competes again, she still has value and worth as a daughter, a sister, a business partner, a friend, a coach, a girlfriend, maybe as a wife or as a mother some day... whatever roles she wishes to take on and whatever tribes she joins.

Our competitive spirit is there to serve us, not to destroy us. Our martial arts rank and our records in matches or at tournaments doesn't define us.  It doesn't define us as a martial artists or as a people of value. It shouldn't.

It's our job, as leaders and teachers and members of this tribe, to help keep the competitive spirit harnessed. in context and working as a tool to improve all of us.