A couple of months ago we had some kids over at our house. One of the kids, a 6 year old who we’ll call Joey, wanted us to play a board game with him. We had been told by his mother that he was having issues with losing. He would often pout, cry, and stomp his feet on the soccer field if the other team scored a goal. So, as we played this game I wasn’t too surprised that when I got ahead of him in the game, he cheated. I called him on it and told him to recount his move. He cheated again. I told him that was cheating and after a little pouting he backed off and put the piece where it was supposed to go. We continued playing and my wife takes a commanding lead over Joey and me. You could see Joey’s enthusiasm for the game waning as she pulled farther and farther ahead. With his interest in the game gone, he declares that he doesn’t want to play anymore and wants to start a new game. I told him that’s not being a good sport; that it’s disrespectful to me and my wife to quit just because he’s losing. He started pouting and was about to get up from the table when I said, “If you quit I won’t play this game with you ever again.” He pushed me (not physically) to see what I would do as my wife cringed. She tried to convince him that I was serious. She also tried to explain to him about winning not being everything and that being a good sport includes being gracious when you lose. Well, none of this was making any difference in Joey’s decision to quit. So, he pulled all the pieces off the board. I got up and walked away and my wife started another game with him.
I’m not a parent so maybe I didn’t handle the situation the best way, but I was reminded of this incident yesterday as I got into a discussion on AJW’s blog. The topic was about the sub-100 mile ultra performance of the year and somehow morphed into this discussion about respecting your fellow competitors and the race and whether quitting because you’re not running up to your expectations is disrespectful of both. The comments from one of the top 100 mile runners in the country surprised me. He said, “i can certainly see pushing through a bad race out of regard and respect and appreciation for other people who have helped you get to where you’re at. but i think the idea of owing it to other people to finish is a bit dramatic… and a bit greedy and pretentious for those who feel that this is owed to them.”
With that I’m going to site one of my favorite sportsmanship/competition speeches. I’ve referenced Jeff Johnson’s speech to the 2001 Borderclash runners before on this blog. If you don’t know, the Borderclash is an annual 5K race between the best high school cross country runners from the states of Washington and Oregon. Jeff begins his speech by asking “Why do you run?” and then continues:
So here’s another question for you: Why do you compete? Why do you race 3.1 miles? That’s gotta hurt. Why do you do it?
For most of you, I imagine that you race for the challenge, the danger, the ‘rush’ of putting yourself in a place where you must do your absolute best. Because the race requires it. To give your best is to honor your fellow competitors, your teammates, your coach, your school, your family, your community, and all the good people who have worked so hard to put on the race. To give your best in a race is a matter of honor, and duty, and you know that going in. You know, also, that the course will challenge you, that your competitors will challenge you, and that you will challenge yourself. You know, too, that there will come a critical moment in the race where you must make the decision to lay it on the line, to take your shot, or to fall back and regroup. And you hope you’ll be up to the challenge, but you’re never entirely sure, and it’s that uncertainty that calls to you, because it is there, at that moment, that moment of decision, that you offer yourself up to be measured: by the clock, by your legs and lungs, by your guts, and by your heart. And if you want to win the race, in that moment of decision, you’re going to have to go a little crazy.
You race, then, because races are a big deal. (In fact, speaking from the vantage point of both experience and hindsight, I dare say that at this time in your lives, the race may be the most important thing that you do. A girl on one of my high school teams came up to me on the day of her graduation and said, ” I learned more in cross country, than I learned in high school.” “I’m glad,” I said, “so did I”.
Races are a big deal. Races are the culmination of all the forces that have brought you here: desire, commitment, focus, sacrifice, suffering, self-discipline, hard work, responsibility. You race because you are invested in effort, and you are invested in success. Moreover, you are invested together.
Look around you. Go ahead. Do it. Look around.
Who are those people you see? Do you think they are your opponents? People who oppose your quest for excellence? Well, they aren’t. They are not your opponents. They are your fellow competitors. In fact, they are your co-conspirators, for to compete is to enter into a conspiracy. The conspiracy is revealed in the word itself: compete, which comes from two Latin roots, com (CUM) and petere (PET-ER-AH), which mean “to strive together”.
Al Oerter, the 4-time Olympic gold medallist in the discus, once said: “I’ve never competed against anyone in my life. I’ve always competed with people. To compete against people is a negative thing. To compete with people is a celebration, a celebration of human capability.”
And so it is. The worthy competitor is essential to the race, not as an enemy, but as a co-conspirator. The race, you see, is a secret form of cooperation. The race is simply each of you seeking your absolute best with the help of each other.
Steve Prefontaine said: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” What gift do you think he was talking about? The gift of your talent, surely. But perhaps also the gift of opportunity, and the gift of youth, perhaps even the gift of life itself.
In any case, you give your best to the race as a matter of honor. You can do no less, because your competitors are giving their best to you. Now, not all races justify all out, total effort. For some races, you have lesser goals – – to score points for your team, to qualify for a more important race later on – – or just to have fun.
I don’t live in a black and white world and I realize there could be lots of reasons to DNF in a race. I’m not at all suggesting that DNFs are immoral as was asked on the AJW thread by a different top 100-mile runner in the nation. I’ve have several myself in the marathon, 50K, and 50 mile distances. But, if you’re out there in a race with me, know that I feel a responsibility to honor the race, the volunteers, my fellow competitors, and maybe most importantly, myself – to give an honest effort. Do I project that onto others? Yeah, I probably do. Does that make me dramatic, greedy and pretentious? You tell me.