When I was 14, I was part of an indoor football team. Every Wednesday my friends and I would gather at an indoor sports hall and kick a small football around a pitch, and it was almost always the highlight of my week. Sometimes we won, mostly we didn’t. I had played football before on a regular outdoor pitch, and I was bad. Indoors, where things happened faster and it hurt more if you fell over, I was truly awful.
But I made my team laugh, a lot. The people who scored the goals and saved the goals and generally kept count of the goals would look at me, my arms awkwardly flailing about and my incessant apologising to my opponent and giggle. I would cheer loudly and repeat sports platitudes that I’m not entirely sure made sense in the context of football – “Keep your head in the game!” “We’re all in this together!”. Actually come to think of it I think I may have just shouted High School Musical quotes, but whatever.
I loved the running around, the giggling, the teamwork – but no matter what, I couldn’t bring myself to care if we lost. I might have a jolt of disappointment before I remembered that there was a stall around the corner where I could buy a sausage sandwich and I’d happily wander off, delighted by my good fortune.
Part of the reason I struggle to be competitive is because I grew up with a mother who, if I was losing in Monopoly, would slide me £100 under the table. I went to a primary school where they had fourth place ribbons (they were yellow) and I felt like an idiot at the first swimming carnival in high school because I didn’t understand why I didn’t win a ribbon for my breaststroke efforts. I have parents who praise everything I do with the sort of enthusiasm most people reserve for actual skill: my dad likes to tell everyone I was a brilliant footballer (which is such a blatant lie I can’t help but laugh every time he says it) and my mum tends to give my credit for every single one of her ideas.
But like all other non-competitive people the other, larger part of my lack of competitive spirit was probably formed by necessity. By the time I was a teenager I rarely won anything and if you’re used to coming in second or third, or 40th, there’s really no use getting cross every time you lose because you’ll spend 95% of your life being unpleasant to be around. From an early age, I just sort of resigned myself to the fact that some people were more talented that I was, and that was fine. Wherever I went, there would be people who were faster or better or smarter than me – and rather than beat myself up for not being able to compete with them, I just… didn’t.
Instead, I got competitive with myself.
I measured my successes and failures by my own progress, not by other people’s. I would studiously avoid that swarm of classmates huddling outside the classroom after we got a test result back, desperately trying to find out how everyone else did so they could work out how they felt about their own score. Instead, I would glance at my mark, fold the test in half and when someone inevitably turned to me and asked how I did, I would shrug and reply: “I did ok,” or “I could have done better,” or “Yeah, I’m really happy.”
Because the thing is – there’s almost always going to be someone that’s better or faster or smarter or stronger than you. Lacking a competitive spirit doesn’t make you soft or weak, it just means you save a lot of time being angry at yourself for not getting the highest grade in the class, or scoring the star goal, or winning that nailbiting last round of Articulate.
If, at the end of the day, you’ve tried your best, really truly given it your all – what does it matter if you didn’t win? Nobody dies. The world goes on turning. You tried, you put yourself out there, you were brave and committed and that’s impressive enough in its own right. Plus, life is too short to be annoyed that you’re not the best at everything.
Unless you’re Blue Ivy, because let’s be real – that kid is perfect.
Image: Hailey Hamilton