A Voice from the Past: Celestial Competition?

This news story reminded me of an old post, so I decided to “resurrect” the old post for current consumption:

Celestial Competition:

This story seems to be making the rounds on the net (again – it first surfaced a few months ago, though I somehow missed it then).

The football committee of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which governs high school sports, is adopting a “score management” policy that will suspend coaches whose teams win by more than 50 points.

This reminded me of two experiences in High School (one of which was a major life lesson to me), and got me thinking about the uses and abuses of competition.

Background: Back when I was in high school in Alaska, our football team was not the best in the state, nor the worst. We were dead in the middle – better than about half, worse than about half. Actually, this was pretty amazing considering we had only about 15 stable people on the Varsity team, meaning that most everyone played both offense and defense (and special teams). And, other than an army base high school, we were the only small school football team in the state – so generally we played the larger schools that often had 50+ people on the team.

First experience: I recall playing Wasilla one time and we got chewed out by the opposing coach for running up the score (we won by over 50 points). Except we hadn’t done that. By about the end of the first quarter, we realized we were going to trounce this team. Now, we could have just sat on the ball to avoid running up the score, but that’s considered somewhat rude (the equivalent of turning your back on an opponent in a duel – it clearly indicates you find him or her no threat at all and worthy of contempt). Besides, no one learns anything from that. Teams learn best by trying (even if it means failure) their plays and formations under real playing conditions.

So, instead of running them into the ground, we decided to try out some of more experimental plays. We even started switching positions (I was a lineman, but I believe I did a few plays as quarterback that game). We honestly tried our best not to run up the score – we even started playing the few Junior Varsity players who had earned the privilege of “suiting up” for the varsity game (though usually they never actually played in the games). It didn’t matter what we did, we couldn’t stop scoring.

Experience two: At the time, the worst football team in the state was Skyline (they have since gotten a lot better). They had the longest losing streak in the history of the state (spread over three or four seasons, IIRC). One game in particular they lost 89 to 0 against Soldotna. Nearly everyone in the state knows Soldotna played dirty, but even given that, they were one of the best teams in the state, and so it was no surprise they lost by so much.

Our team was scheduled to play them the next week. During that week, the players would (during practice) joke about how there was no need to practice that week, since we were playing Skyline – some even joked we didn’t even need to show up – we’d still win.

One of the coaches overheard that, and pulled the team aside and chewed them out. And then he gave a lecture that wound up being a major life lesson for me. The gist of it was this: “Do you think it was easy for that team to lose by that much and show up to practice the next Monday? To walk down the halls of their high school, and still decide they were going to play the next game? That team has real courage. To lose by so much and still show up to practice and to still give it your all in every game the rest of the season – that’s true guts. You guys may not like the Skyline team – that’s fine. But you had better respect them.”

Apparently, given the Connecticut story, self-esteem is more important than courage or learning how to cope with real defeat.

But this leads me to an even bigger problem: I often hear members of the church claim that competition is incompatible with the Gospel. Now, I haven’t done competitive sports since high school (barring a few intramural games my freshman year in college) [UPDATE: I now compete in Highland games and other strongman type stuff], though I still workout in the gym 5-6 days a week. But I learned many valuable lessons through sports in high school.

And while I recognize it’s possible to learn a lot of bad lessons from sports, that usually happens when you have a bad coach, rather than in the nature of the sport itself.

What think y’all?

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About Ivan Wolfe

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was just shy of 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has five kids and four stepkids.

10 thoughts on “A Voice from the Past: Celestial Competition?

  1. Failure is essential to the gospel, because without failure there can’t be choice and accountability. Mostly when people object to competition they object to failure.

    But competition is a little different from plain ol’ failure because in competition you are working to cause someone else to fail. That isn’t a feature of heaven–the pie is infinite, so you don’t have to cause others to fail in order to succeed there.

    When people say, ‘competition is incompatible with the gospel,’ if they mean ‘in heaven, we won’t need to cause others to fail in order to succeed,’ then they are right. if they mean “competitive activities in this life are unchristian,” they’re nuts.

  2. Friendly competition is often an important part of bettering yourself. There are incredibly important life lessons to be learned through sports, lessons about discipline, self-improvement, overcoming adversity, etc. These are eternal lessons that can and will be applied later in our eternal existence. Friendly competition can help you reach goals that you could not do on your own. But like anything else, it can be taken too far, and that happens when you begin to see your competitor as an enemy.

  3. Adam G, I beg to differ with your comment, “competition is a little different from plain ol’ failure because in competition you are working to cause someone else to fail.” This is a common misunderstanding, and even plays into economics, politics, and other areas. There are those individuals and perhaps a few teams that see competition (or success) as working to cause another to fail. However, most honest competitors are putting their best (at the moment) against another’s best (at the moment), and as in Ivan’s example of his football team against Wasilla, trying new things out when they can. We are all expected to strive for perfection. Some of that is competition, against self and against one or more people or small groups we (as individuals or small groups) have placed in a position of the example to work toward. This is because, try as we might, Jesus Christ and other Gods are not someone we really, personally, know, and because as Gods, they are perfect (whole). Through competition (i.e., to become the best teacher, or youth advisor, or clerk, for instance) we, and those “against” (it’s really “with”) whom we are comparing ourselves, we all, and each, can become better. There is no limited number of games, events, or percentages in the “W column”, therefore, there is nothing that inherently deprives the competitors of either a future opportunities nor of an overall winning record.

  4. I personally have never heard anyone say competition is contrary to the gospel; but maybe those who do so are thinking of President Benson’s talk on pride?

    “Pride is essentially competitive in nature…. The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: ‘Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.’”

  5. The only year I played little league baseball I was on an “expansion” team–more boys than expected showed up for tryouts, and so each team cut a few players who were combined into a new one. As you might expect, the coaches did not cut their good players, so we were a collection of the worst players in the league.

    And we had a perfect season: 0-12.

    Some of the games were blow-outs, and some were close. In one heart-breaking game we actually had a lead going into the bottom of the seventh (the last inning), but we couldn’t hold it and ended up losing yet again.

    I don’t think the experience scarred any of us. We knew we weren’t as good as the other teams, but we tried hard, and did our best. It just wasn’t good enough to win. And I’m really glad that nobody gave us a stupid trophy to preserve our “self esteem.” Like the old Brooklyn Dodgers, we vowed “wait til next year.”

  6. One other thing: Frank Arnold, who coached BYU’s basketball team for a while in the 1970s and 80s, was in my ward. He once contrasted sports to art, and said that sports were a better test of manhood (or something) because sports involved competition. It seemed that he had missed the point completely.

    The real competition, whether one is playing basketball or playing the violin, is inside–how well are you doing compared to your ideal? Sure, it’s nice to win a football game, but if you play poorly and still manage to win because of luck or a bad call by the refs or because the opponent was even worse, there’s really not much joy in the victory. It’s sort of like the Dream Team beating Angola or Liberia or whoever it was. Meh.

  7. Wow, you got me thinking about my playing days in Alaska. Our team from the Air Force Base won the High School State Championship in 1970. We had 5 team in class A or AA. We even had to fly to one game. Playing sports really help mature me and gave me life lessions. The story in the paper really bothers me, bullying? So now if any NFL team is ahead by more than say 25 points, they get flagged for bullying, LOL. Not fun being on the wrong side of the score but after some time you get over it.

  8. Not everyone can win at everything all the time. I think that we’re doing our children more harm than good by letting them think that they can get something for nothing. Out here in Texas, these kind of policies would cause an uproar of epic proportions. We love our football out here…I mean, we’re like mad-crazy about high school, college, and major league football.
    Combine that rabid fanaticism with a culture of cowboys and machismo, and what you get is “Man up.”
    Healthy competition is what builds character, especially in teens because they have to be competitive. College is competitive, the work place is competitive. They have to learn how to step up their game, no pun intended.
    I’m afraid that if we send this message that defeat is somehow unfair, that we’re going to send our children into the world with a sense of entitlement and an unrealistic expectation of getting praise or recognition where it is not earned. I’m afraid that this instills in teens a fear of having the courage to face hard tasks, even if success is not guaranteed.
    The message should be “Well, son…maybe you’re not cut out for football,” instead of “Let’s punish the other guy for working hard, being talented, and having a better playbook to make you feel better. Now go in the corner and lick your wounds, son.”
    I think it’s unfair and a tad bit on the cheaty side to have a “score management” policy and suspend the coach just because they brought their A-game.
    Pfft…bleeding heart liberals.
    For this, and many other reasons, I’m so stinkin’ glad I live in the great state of Texas.

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