Competition – Bringing Out the Best

By Marjorie Foerster Eddington

Competition tends to bring out the best or the worst in people. It tends to inspire or to paralyze. It has spurred on many inventors, athletes, scholars, and has led to economic prosperity and general progress. But competition taken to the extreme has also resulted in abject failure, ethical lapses, and business scandals. Competition, though, seems necessary and is healthy -- as long as it is correctly understood and utilized so that it brings out our best.

How do we make sure that competition brings out the best rather than the worst in us? The answer, in part, lies in our concept of competition.

So often we think of "competition" as a "contest between rivals" (Webster) that assumes a winner and loser. Often with the thought of winning and losing comes the fear of lack -- not earning high enough test scores to get into the college of our choice; not having the right experience to get the desired job; not having the endurance to last the entire match; not having enough confidence to engage in the competition; not being mentally tough enough to fight off our fears. But we have a choice. We can look at competitive situations and see winners and losers, or we can take the same situation and see all winners.

At the 2006 U.S. Open Tennis tournament, Andre Agassi demonstrated that even though he lost his last match, he was a true winner. I will never forget his farewell words as he gracefully retired or the powerful emotion behind them: "The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I have found." Andre explained that he had found "loyalty," "inspiration," "generosity," and the fans who had supported him through his 21-year tennis career. It was an amazing moment and an amazing example for all of us.

"Compete" also means to "strive consciously or unconsciously for an objective" (Webster).

  • This definition has nothing to do with lack or fear.
  • It doesn't even imply a rival.
  • Rather, it declares that we have a goal and work hard to reach that goal.

Sometimes when we work to obtain an objective or prize, we think of competing against others -- for first place, for the part in the play, for the job we want. Sometimes we think of competing against ourselves -- to do our personal best; to come up with an original idea; etc. But the origin of the word "compete" has nothing to do with competing "against" anyone or anything.

"Compete" comes from the words meaning "to seek together, to come together, agree, be suitable" (Webster).

  • This concept of competition makes us work together in order to attain our goals.
  • That's a complete 180º turn from the accepted or usual connotation of competition.

This definition fits in well with Jesus' counsel:

That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matt. 18:19, 20)

What a wonderful sense of divine power is given to us from God when we "agree" with others, when we "gather" to celebrate and express the Christ!

How does this relate to competition?
Most sports require athletes to work together in some way. They "agree" to the rules, to fair play, to certain ethical standards. If they're on a team, they "seek together" that first place. If they don't work well together on the team, the team doesn't do well. Even in individual sports there's an element of working together: the opponents push each other to excel. Competing against someone who is better than we are makes us better, and vice versa. We also know that if we're the best in a certain area, we have to work hard to maintain that status, as there's always someone right behind us.

Every competitive situation, whether it's in sports, school, or business, is an opportunity to express our God-given qualities (dominion, accuracy, creativity, strength, endurance, poise, etc.); to bring out the best in ourselves and in our competitors; to grow and progress. To make sure that we make the most of competitive opportunities, we might ask ourselves:

  • What's my goal, my objective?
  • How can I work together (with my team members, with my competitors) to achieve that goal?

If our goal is to destroy and humiliate the competition, we are accepting that we can be destroyed and humiliated. We're also neglecting the "work together" aspect of competition. As a result, we've turned a positive into a negative, an opportunity for growth into sheer rivalry. We read in the Bible, "Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves" (Phil. 2:3). This does not mean that we do not have confidence in ourselves. We have to have confidence if we want to do well.

If our goal is to do our best; to see the good in all the competitors or competition; to appreciate the opportunity to be pushed by others to excel, then we may discover new ways of doing things, may achieve our personal best, and won't be defeated --regardless of the outcome.

But we don't generally compete to lose. We're not thrilled with the concept of 2nd place. Most of us want to win. Even St. Paul writes:

You've all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You're after the one that's gold eternally. (The Message, I Cor. 9:24, 25)

If we really want to win, then we compete not for ourselves, not for a team, not for a medal, but for God. We run the spiritual race. Paul affirmed:

Brethren … this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded. (Phil. 3:13-16)

Being "thus minded" not only ensures that we are working for a worthwhile prize which can never fade, but it also helps us evaluate how we view and respond to competition.

How do we know if our concept of competition is unhealthy and brings out the worst?

  • We get intense and lose our cool and control -- when we mess up on a test, in sports, during a performance….
  • We get angry and aggressive towards others -- try to crush them, put them down, make them feel inferior, or hurt them.
  • We blame others for our mistakes.
  • We allow our happiness to depend upon the outcome of whatever it is we wish for -- our favorite team to win, first place in the speech and debate tournament, a promotion at work….
  • We get greedy, cut corners, cheat, and break the rules, whether they're rules of the game or rules of ethics.
  • We allow fear to consume and paralyze us, don't feel confident in our ability to do what we need to do, and so fail at the outset.
  • We avoid competition, confrontation, or anything that has an implied winner or loser.
  • We compete to glorify ourselves.

How do we know when our concept of competition is healthy and brings out the best?

  • We keep our cool, are able to think clearly, and feel in control of our emotions.
  • We feel good about ourselves, knowing we gave our all even if the outcome is not what we wanted, even if we "lose."
  • We recognize and are able to acknowledge the good in our competitors.
  • We see what we need to do to improve and are willing and eager to improve.
  • We feel energized by the competition and impelled to do our best.
  • We maintain our ethical standards.
  • We don't let fear take hold of us; we enter into the competition even if we're afraid and learn that fear can't keep us from doing what we need to be doing.
  • We look at competition as something that helps us reach a goal and make us or a situation better.
  • We compete to glorify God.

If our goal is to glorify God, to live and share the Christ spirit, to express the talents and abilities God gave us, then we are making the most of competition and the most of life. We are allowing God to bring out the best in us. That makes all of us true winners.