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Life is Like Pickleball, Part three (Why do We Care About Winning?)


Putting People Over Competition

It is a gross understatement to say that I have always been a highly competitive person. Among family and close friends, my angry outbursts during sporting events or other forms of competition are the stuff of legend. During my last AYSO soccer game, I was ejected for intentionally kicking another player on the back of his legs, and then proceeded to help my cause by flipping off the referee on my way off the field. When I was on the high school tennis team, our coach said that he would fine us for outbursts of profanity, but once the tally for me had grown too long, he gave up on collecting since he knew that I could not possibly afford to pay. I’ve broken racquets, injured my foot more than once by kicking hard objects, and scattered board game pieces across tables when things were not going well. Looking back, I mostly laugh at my former self, although I sometimes think back and cringe.

Fortunately, most of the really crazy stuff stopped when I “grew up.” Still, there would be moments, fewer and far between as the years passed, in which I would lose it. It didn’t help that I was playing sports that bring out the testosterone in us competitive males. Basketball tends to draw a lot of trash talkers, with players often caring as much (or more) about showing people up as they care about winning. Racquetball is all about power, and when four guys start wailing away in a (very loud) tightly enclosed space, things can get a bit heated, particularly when you get smacked by a ball going well over a hundred miles an hour.

One of the attractions of pickleball is that things tend to be more on the mellow side. Part of this is the nature of the game. (How seriously can you really take a game called pickleball anyway?) Finesse is generally more important than power, and since the game is easier on the body, it tends to draw an older crowd of people who, like myself, have usually mellowed a bit with age. While there is a part of me that misses the competitive intensity of my former favorite sports, I’m more interested now in chilling with some cool people and having fun. Still, there are times when the quality of the game is high, and the intensity starts to pick up, that the crazy competitive teenager will once again creep out.

But where exactly does this burning desire to win come from? On a purely rational level, I’ve always known that it doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things whether I win some game or not. So why, particularly in the heat of the moment, have I spent a lifetime caring so much about winning? While I don’t think there is a single answer to this question, and people may have different reasons for being highly competitive, I have a few theories: (Some of these, by the way, are clearly related to one another.)

1) Achievement – We humans have a tendency to define ourselves by what we have accomplished. This is true whether playing sports, building a career, raising a family, or even building a social life. And there are few things worse in life than realizing that you have failed. If we define ourselves through achievements, then what is left when we haven’t achieved our goals? And if we don’t define ourselves by what we have achieved, what other forms of self-evaluation are there?

2) Genetics – The world is a brutal place, built on the principle of “survival of the fittest.” We stay alive generally by killing things, and humans at times have felt compelled to kill other humans who are members of a competing clan, tribe, chiefdom, nation, or empire in order to survive. The intensity that we see in competitive sports may largely be evolutionary baggage, and it is likely, to a certain extent, a healthy way to release this stuff that is built into our DNA. It’s definitely an improvement over fighting wars.

3) Self-esteem – I hate to admit the fact that I have a fragile ego, but I know that on some level, I feel better about myself when I win. And unfortunately, this feeling is enhanced sometimes when I see someone else brought down. There is a strange perverse pleasure that comes when you see someone else fail, particularly when it’s someone you don’t really like all that much. I guess our lives don’t seem to suck as much when someone else’s life seems worse at the moment. It’s one reason why excessive use of social media can be unhealthy. We get tired of seeing other people talk about how happy they are all the time. Of course, talking about how happy you are on social media is just one more form of competition, and people (we think) will respect us more if we are “winning” at life all the time.

4) Entertainment – Sometimes, I will play games or sports against people who clearly don’t seem to care if they win or lose, and it’s boring. They would probably be happy if we didn’t even keep score. But I want to keep score. If no one cares at all whether they win or lose, then it’s no longer really a game, and I have little interest in playing. Part of the excitement of playing sports or any form of competition comes from facing your fear of losing.

5) Camaraderie – When you listen to people talk about what it’s like to play team sports at the highest levels, it sounds a lot like going to war. And when people have gone “into the trenches” together, the bonds that are formed can last a lifetime. If nothing else, this should be motivation enough to put yourself into the fire with a teammate (or two or ten) at your side.

6) Our partner - When playing doubles, we want to win so that we don't anger or disappoint our partner. We all want to be liked and to make people happy, after all. (Also, see self esteem above.)

7) Future games - If we play well and win pretty often, we will earn the respect of good players and have the opportunity to play with them in the future. This is one of my primary motivations. The higher the quality of game you can play, the more fun it is.

While there may be other factors at play, I will leave it at that. As my little list hopefully indicates, there is nothing necessarily wrong with being highly competitive, so long as we do not let it take precedence over more important matters. Sports, unfortunately, has brought out the jerk in me on many occasions. I have not only made a fool of myself at times due to my desire to win. I have also let my desire to seek out good competition take precedence over my concern for other people.

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the United States. An important reason is that there are all sorts of people out there who are more than happy to bring new players into the fold. It is this open, laid back atmosphere that drew me and so many others into this game with a funny name. But I find myself now struggling with a balancing act. I want to find good competition in order to get some exercise and help my game grow, but I also want to play some part in helping “newbies” and others who happen to not be as good as I am (yet). Putting people over competition – even for only a certain percentage of the time - does not come naturally to me.

I am happy to report, however, that winning truly isn’t the highest priority for me anymore. I care more about how I play (and behave), how much exercise I get, how many laughs we have, and how many people I get to know. I try to avoid people (and the places where they play) who do whatever it takes to win, particularly those who think it’s a great strategy to always pick on the weaker player. (If it’s not a tournament, I’d rather hit it to the better player. It makes the game far more interesting.)

This will likely be my last pickleball related blog for a while. I’ve written a lot of blogs (about various things), read many books, taught a bunch of classes, and both won and lost plenty of games. But I’ve really only learned a few important things, and playing pickleball has helped drive home one of them: life is about relationships. When it’s all said and done, I doubt that many of us will lie on our death beds thinking about all the games we won or lost. We will probably be thinking about the people who have come (and often gone), and maybe wish that we had spent more time thinking about them than winning.

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