On being a competitive person: the ugly truth

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For a long time, I’ve thought of myself as someone who doesn’t like participating in team sports. But it had been so many years since I’d even attempted a team sport that I couldn’t remember why. And I love watching my children play team sports, and have observed the wonderful potential for camaraderie and intensive learning. So … this spring, when the opportunity arose to join a women’s soccer team, I signed up without hesitation.

At first, I thought the difficulty was going to be the fact that I hadn’t played organized soccer since the age of ten. But I’ve been watching a lot of excellent soccer over the past few years, and I’m physically fit, and a quick learner — and our team welcomes beginners. So that hasn’t been an issue. 
What I realized after last night’s game is that there is another difficulty, one I’d forgotten, and it’s the reason I don’t like team sports.
Actually, I do like team sports. I love playing on a team. The problem is that I’m not always a fabulous team player. The problem, in other words, is me. Team sports don’t like me. 
For years, I suppressed my competitive nature, and only began embracing it again when I took up running and signed up for races. Wow, this is actually fun, thought I; and wondered why on earth I’d suppressed such an essential part of myself. In fact, I embraced my competitive nature so thoroughly that I forgot what I’d disliked about it in the first place — and let’s just say there was good reason for that suppression.
Here’s why: Because competition brings out an adrenalin-fuelled intensity in my personality that can be extremely unpleasant. Nope, it’s worse than that. It can be ugly.
In individual competition, there’s no problem: the only one I’m being hard on is myself, and for reasons probably best discussed with a therapist, being hard on myself brings out my best effort. But on a team, competitive intensity, handled badly, just sucks. Basically, I’m transferring expectations about my own level of intensity to everyone around me. What I seem to demand of myself, and therefore of teammates, is maximum effort — forget being there for fun, apparently I just want to win. Honestly, if this team sports thing is going to work out, I need to figure out how to dial this aspect of my personality down, and fast. Also, I need to shut up. There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations for myself; but in a team setting, positive feedback is the only feedback worth giving.
(And I need to get off the field without complaint when I’m subbed out! Good grief. It was one little moment in Sunday’s game, but honestly, in that moment I behaved like an ass.) 
You know, on the surface, it was a good game on Sunday evening — we won for the first time this season, and I scored the only goal of the game, and it was a very nice goal, put together with the help of excellent teamwork. But I came home feeling yucky. Realizing that I’d let my competitive nature take over; realizing that I wanted too badly to win and was willing to fight inappropriately toward that end.
So I guess my question is: Can I change? Can I, ahem, mature? Can I become a good teammate?
In some ways, I hate how the learning never seems to end. In other ways, I’m glad for it. Life has a way of shaving off my hubris, and keeping me humble. Ugh. It’s no fun being kept humble, even if it’s good medicine.
But I’m hopeful. It’s not all bad news. I really like being coached and getting feedback and criticism on my play — probably shaped by years of appreciating the writer/editor relationship, which is based on necessary criticism and mutual trust. And I really want to keep playing on a team, and improving — everything. Skills, fitness, but especially attitude. Especially that. I’ll report back.
The week in suppers: fresh from the freezer
On giving it all up to pursue the creative life

4 Comments

  1. Carrie — This post makes me wonder if this is why I have always shunned team sports and group work. But I want to say something in defense of being competitive and wanting to win. I think that ambition is actually under-developed in most people. I would also say that raw ambition isn’t ladylike and while being an ass is not attractive in any gender, I would be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater: maybe it’s ok to have raw competitiveness too.

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  2. Thanks for your defense of raw competitiveness. And ambition is good, I agree! But I just KNOW there are people who embody both great ambition and excellent sports-person-ship, and I aspire to be that kind of competitor. Strong on the field, but also supportive of my entire team.

    I would like to figure out how to moderate my primitive brain’s response to competition. Honestly, I don’t think it makes me a better player.

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  3. wow, this expresses exactly how I’ve always felt about team sports too, which is why in high school I always stuck to track and field.. the running events. solitary and the only competitor is yourself essentially.

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  4. Come to think of it, I never liked group projects either. Same issues.

    Glad to hear I’m not alone.

    Is it possible to change??

    Reply

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