The speaker was distinguishing between destructive and constructive kinds of competitiveness. He didn’t dwell on or develop the distinction except to say that the desire to excel was certainly constructive, but that what he witnessed at a church softball game was anything but constructive. A pastor had to be reminded who (or whose) he was so that, hopefully, he could get hold of himself. “But you don’t understand!’ The pastor protested. “Yes, I do understand!” His critic assured him. “Just let me have my pity party!” The pastor continued. At least he was acknowledging that it was indeed a pity party. But he was missing the point of the entire activity, which was to enjoy each others’ company and get some good exercise in the process.
Destructive competitiveness is driven by pride that is characterized by an intense desire to outdo, show up, or put down an opponent. Constructive competitiveness is characterized by a desire to do our best, to excel, or to please the One who gifted us with the ability and talents to engage in the activities in the first place. It carries with it no need to hate or dislike the opponents or deliberately sacrifice the relationships with them on the altar of winning a contest at any cost. In fact the competition of the contest can actually serve to build a stronger, richer relationship between opponents.
A case in point is the friendship that existed and still exists between the fierce NBA opponents of yesteryear, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Each brought out the best in the other taking their respective skills to new and unprecedented levels. Their constructive competition also did wonders for the NBA League, popularizing professional basketball as never before. They had no desire to harm each other, they could shake hands before and after games regardless of who won. Throughout the ferocity of their matchups over the years, they continued to care about each other and demonstrate good sportsmanship as an example to the rest of the league and the millions of fans, young and old, who watched. There are many other examples of matchups in pro and college sports that had similar positive effects, even if not quite on as grand a scale.
I think it was Leo Durocher who said notoriously, “Nice guys finish last.” There was truth in his words in so far as he meant that on-the-field niceness can often translate into softness or lack of determination on the part of athletes. Magic and Larry were both winners but still nice to each other, even if primarily AFTER the game in some very bittersweet moments. Bitter because losing is a bitter brew and it hurts. Sweet because it needn’t separate friends or prevent the making of friends, and because winning is exhilarating. But if Durocher meant that one athlete should hate another in order to perform at a high level, he was dead wrong. If he meant that good sportsmanship or friendship was inconsistent with winning, he was also dead wrong.
There are many ways that constructive competition is modeled in our communities. One of the most impressive ways. though, is through volunteer organizations like the Civil Air Patrol. CAP is a service organization with some 50, 000 members nationwide that interests school-age cadets as well as senior members in areas like aerospace studies, search and rescue, and character development. Many of these students go on to military academies or careers in aviation. Civil Air Patrol cadets compete among themselves and with themselves in meeting physical fitness requirements, progressing in rank, and qualifying for various achievement awards. Additionally, they compete as squadrons within their own regions and across regions in drill competitions that include color guard, athletics, and question and answer for general knowledge.
And, as if that weren’t enough, they also spur each other on in what is known as the Cyber Patriot Program which involves two rounds of national competition annually at the middle school and high school levels. The Cyber Patriot Program includes teams from Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force and Sea Cadet ROTC squadrons across the nation that challenge themselves and each other in the field of computer skills, especially where it concerns computer security, which is becoming a more and more vital issue by the day. The Civil Air Patrol alone accounts for 400 of the teams involved in CPP assignments, far and away above any of the other military service branches. For this and much more, including the rescue of precious lives in distress when disaster strikes, they are to be applauded! Competition, when approached in this constructive a manner, can help to produce solutions and healing for society’s problems, rather than to compound the divisions and resentments that we know already exist.