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. Buy 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), 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 W.

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.

18 thoughts on “Celestial Competition?

  1. Well, I’m too busy studying (giving myself a 10 minute break before diving back in) to really say anything about the morality of competition, but I would like to mention that if such a rule were in place and I was on a team that lost by exactly 50 points, that’d be just as bad (and maybe in some ways even more embarassing) as losing by 75 or 100 or whatever. Now they’ve declared that losing by 50 points is jut uniformly the worst you could possibly do. Sort of like how my elementary school eliminated “A” through “F” grades — you got either E, S, or U for actual performance, and 1, 2, or 3 for effort. Which meant that you got chewed out and felt miserable for anything worse than an “S2,” instead of a “C” — and the kids who got all “E1″s would brag about those instead of an “A+” I got an S2 in math once, and I cried for about a week; in my gifted classes anything worse than a 2 or an S1 would probably mean the teacher calling your parents that night. It was exactly like my mom’s high school and a C- in the 1970s, but now the report cards were marginally less comprehensible to outsiders.

    If they really don’t want competition, they ought to just ban competitive sports. Otherwise, they ought to admit that this can be a sometimes brutal world, and hey, here’s a virtually consequence-free way of preparing children to deal with it.

  2. It drives me absolutely nuts when I hear sportscasters and talk show idiots say that you shouldn’t throw the ball in the fourth quarter up by 40 or 50, when you’ve put in your backups.

    The point of having backups is to be a reserve for the starters, so if you’re going to put them in, you should run the same offense you’ve been running all game. If you just want to run the ball, leave the starters in.

    If you’re not good enough to stop the other team, then don’t play the game. Or leave your starters in there against their scrubs.

    It’s called competition. If you don’t want it, don’t play.

    Now, my daughter’s 9-year-old girls soccer team coach has decided that we will only practice one day a week for an hour (some coaches do two practices a week for 90 minutes each). His comment was that “this is a rec league to have fun; if you want to get serious about it, go join the select teams.” Then he proceeded to work them very hard for an hour. I get what he was trying to say — that they will be prepared for competition against other U10 teams in the city, some of whom prepare more, but he wasn’t going to lose sleep over the final results, as long as everyone participates, learns something, and has fun. There’s a fundamental difference between rec league and city/school/travel leagues.

    My dad says that the local high school BB coach just quit, because the school board put a statement in the amended contract that says that every player must play in every game. Since the coach is ultimately retained on Wins and Losses, he decided to quit rather than sign the amended contract, since he said he couldn’t be competitive in that environment. I’m OK with his stance.

  3. My fencing club in Orem had a wide range of participants. One of them was an eight-year-old kid. During the preliminary “seeding” rounds (where you fence a variety of people and those with the best scores get the most favorable match-ups in direct eliminations). He was actually pretty good. If I had been eight years old instead of 29, he might well have beat me. But the hard fact was, my arms were twice as long as his.

    I might have gone easy on him. But the truth was, in seeding rounds, you had to win, by as many points as possible, in order to get the most favorable match-ups in the real tournament rounds. I really needed to annihilate this kid.

    My style was ugly and effective. I used my greater arm strength to manhandle his blade out of the way and then nail him. He never really had a chance. I could have played fair, on skill alone … but then he might have scored, you see. Which would have hurt my own chances in the tournament…

    The kid was pretty frustrated at the end. He knew what was happening.

    But he “came to play.” His dad was utterly unsympathetic.

    By the way, I think the kid just scored in the top twenty in junior nationals a couple years ago.

  4. Then you have the case of the two coaches in Bountiful, Utah, who chose to pitch around the home run hitter by intentionally walking him to get to the cancer survivor (in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and runner on the bases).

  5. I remember YW basketball. We lost to a team 59-0 once. We had a lot of younger players. I remember how evil this other team was. They were very aggressive. Their coach promised them a pizza if they hit 60, so they were getting so angry at us that they couldn’t score on us in the last 7 minutes or whatever.
    I think you get to learn so much more by losing than by winning. Of course, since I never did win anything in sports I wouldn’t know. But I’m quite proud of my many losses and failures and what I learned. Like in 5th grade when I got straight As except for my B- in PE so I couldn’t be on any honor roll. My poor teacher was so upset for my sake, but I learned that the honors of men didn’t really amount to much because they have arbitrary rules.

  6. Incidentally, in the case of the Bountiful baseball knuckleheads … I think the worst knucklehead is the idiot manager who decides to protect his slugger with the kid who couldn’t play. You can say what you want about the intentional walk — and they really should have tried to disguise it better — but that’s a part of the game. Batting that kid behind the slugger was an a priori attempt to secure protection through sympathetic means, rather than athletic ones.

  7. Queuno, in college ball and pro ball I agree. Once you put your secondaries in you want to give them experience. Asking them not to play hard is simply ridiculous. I know back in the day the Cougars did this all the time. Lavell didn’t want to run up the score. But he got a lot of flack for it. (Both because of national notice of scores as well as training of players)

    However in more regular games I think teaching good sportsmanship is crucial. We both have to learn how to be good winners and good losers.

  8. To get beack to the actual question -

    I think competition is an eternal concept. That’s what I understand as opposition in ALL things. Not that we don’t know who will win in the end. As exalted beings, I see us all on the same team, working together. But Satan’s rebellion proves that evil will still want to compete with us.

  9. Although the prospect of total victory over evil may seem a far off, I view it as the primary purpose of the celestial order of things to end competition (at least between the righteous) once and for all.

  10. The comments remind me of some more high school lessons from sports.

    I am not a great athelete. My father is one of the top amateur wrestlers in the Nation, but I was always only okay at wrestling or football or whatever.

    In fact, I wrestled from Kindergarten all through High School (except I broke my foot my senior year and was forced to sit out the entire season that year). I didn’t win a single match until 8th grade – and then I only won one.

    However, in High School, my father gave me a challenge: Refuse to lose a match by getting pinned (which is the “worst” way to lose, or the best way to win). And so I worked at that. I often lost by technical falls (when one person is 15 points ahead, the match is over). This didn’t seem like much, but I frustrated quite a few state champions because they could not pin me. Now, this was still me losing, but I was learning that’s it’s possible to not lose as badly, and there can even be a sort of triumph in refusing to give up, even when clearly beaten (I even got rousing applause from the audience after six minutes of me getting trounced by a state champion – but the state champion couldn’t pin me no matter how hard he tried. I was clearly outclassed, but I kept it up anyway).

    After that, I actually started to win, bit by bit. But then I went to college and decided playing in bands was more important to me than playing sports. But I still feel I learned quite a bit.

    There is a problem when bad coaches or over-competitive parents ruin the games – but there is a lot of truth in “it’s just a game.” Sarah’s comment “Otherwise, they ought to admit that this can be a sometimes brutal world, and hey, here’s a virtually consequence-free way of preparing children to deal with it.” is very, very true.

    Heck, even bad coaches can provide life lessons, since everyone is going to have to deal with really bad bosses and supervisors in their life (I’ve had more than my share of those, despite having had excellent coaches in high school).

  11. I think competition is fine, if we can do it while avoiding comparing ourselves with others.

  12. As a runner, I would like to point out that competition is an essential part of improvement. If I run a 5k, I can certainly spend my time running by myself, and comparing my new time to my last best time, and if I’m in decent shape I will run OK. But if I am running with others, and have them to compete against, I am guaranteed to run 5-10 percent faster than running by myself.

    I can’t imagine that these instincts are given to us without a reason. Yes, we need to avoid unhealthy over-competitiveness, but healthy competition that helps us better ourselves is essential, in my opinion.

  13. In my only year of organized Little League baseball, I was on an expansion team–more players showed up than the organizers had expected, and a new team was formed with a few cast-offs from each of the other teams.

    We went 0-12. The high point of our season was the game when we went into the bottom of the 7th (the last inning) with a lead. But we couldn’t hold it.

    I don’t think it scarred any of us. And we kept showing up and we tried our best.

    And they didn’t give us any lousy trophy for showing up. We knew we didn’t deserve a trophy–but there would be another year, another league, and we could try again.

    I finally got that sports trophy the year I turned 31, in the lawyers basketball league in New York. It was worth the wait.

  14. Ivan, some children’s leagues have multiple “seasons” in a season. If one team is too good they’ll rearrange players to achieve more parity. We might complain about it, but some professional sporting organizations do the same thing: i.e. put big incentives for some degree of parity so as to make play more exciting and competitive.

  15. Clark -

    actually, that practice sounds rather reasonable. I was more referring to the articles I linked to, where odd rules designed to make all the kids feel good about themselves create bizarre situations like – well, if you didn’t click through (or for those who don’t want to) here’s an excerpt:

    On August 11 in Bristol, Conn., a Little League team from Colchester, Vt., only had to retire its Portsmouth, N.H. opposition in the top of the sixth inning (Little League games are six innings rather than nine) to win the game 9-8 and move on to the New England regional championship game.

    But there was a problem. The Vermont team had made its third out in its half of the fifth inning before player Adam Bentley got to the plate. The Little League has a strict rule that requires every player to bat at least once a game, and the penalty for violating it is forfeit. Vermont’s coach Denis Place realized, to his horror, that even though his team had the lead entering the last inning the only way it could avoid losing by forfeit was for Bentley to get an at bat. For that to happen, the New Hampshire team would have to tie the score or take the lead, requiring the teams to play the last half of the sixth inning.

    Place held a meeting of his players at the pitcher’s mound and instructed them to let New Hampshire score a run. The plan: walk the first batter, and ensure that he made it home with the assistance of wild pitches and intentional errors so the game would be deadlocked at 9-9. Then, hopefully, win the game in the bottom of the sixth inning, with Adam Bentley getting his mandated turn at the plate.

    Not so fast. The New Hampshire team’s coach, Mark McCauley figured out what was happening and ordered his players not to score. So after a walk and two wild pitches allowed a New Hampshire runner to reach third base, the player refused to advance to the plate despite another wild pitch and a fielding error. McCauley also told his players to strike out intentionally, preserving Vermont’s lead but guaranteeing a successful New Hampshire protest that, under the rules, would require that New Hampshire win by forfeit.

    This obviously led to a ridiculous spectacle: one team trying to give up a run while the other team was trying to make outs and avoid scoring. The perplexed umpires understandably chose to end the debacle by ejecting Place and his pitcher from the game. Vermont won 9-8…and then New Hampshire was awarded the victory by forfeit, because Adam Bentley never got his turn at bat. The New Hampshire team advanced to the next round.

  16. I wish I could have been on a team that won 89 to 0, I have a feeling I could learn a lot from humiliating a lesser opponent. Making people look bad because they aren’t as good as me at something has always helped me enjoy it more. I say run up the score to 200. They’ll learn from it, just like people learn from being beat on by a bully.

  17. Yes – that’s exactly it jjohnsen. No one will ever, in their lives or jobs or service as an adult, ever find themselve outmatched or overpowered. So there’s no reason to every learn how to deal with it.

    Your comment shows too much cynicism about the winners. As my first anecdote shows, when we beat Wasilla (it was by 50 points, not 89) we weren’t being bullies and it didn’t make us feel really good about ourselves. We recognized what was going on, that we were clearly superior, and yet it wouldn’t have been right to just sit on the ball.

    But, y’know – all we need are a few more people like you in power and we can have a whole generation of kids who feel that anytime someone is better than you at something, they are automatically a bully.

    Joe Satriani is a better guitar player than I am. He would trounce me at a competition. He must be a bully. In fact, when I competed at the Utah County Fiddle Fest and didn’t even place – the first place winner, he must have been a bully for daring to be better than I was.

    Whatever.

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