As my dirty, sweaty palm makes contact with my opponent’s, I look him in the eye. He was their striker and my assignment to shut down for the game. I put everything I had into making sure he did not get in on goal, complete a pass, have any room to breathe. In that split second we reach each other in the “good game” line, I search his face. I wonder to myself, What does he think of me? His skill is superior to mine. His team was superior, based on the 3 to 1 score. I respect him for his play, for the effort it took me to do my job. I wonder if he feels the same. As we high five he takes his other hand and claps me on the back. I do the same, and we nod at each other as we both say, “Good game.” I answer my own question. I earned his respect.
While sportsmanship, fun, and cooperation are invaluable to being a successful team and performing well in a game, the goal of competition is ultimately to see the opposing side fail. For there to be a winner, there has to be a loser. Teams and individuals aim to hold the trophy while their opponents bear the weight of second-place medals. They aim to stand atop the podium and look down on the competition while their adversaries look up at their success. They aim to achieve their goals by extinguishing the candle of ambition that lights the way of their foes. In sports, people want to be better than the rest. This view on competition does not seem very Quakerly, for it does not seem to promote equality and celebrate the great things found on both teams. However, through my time competing in athletics, I have found that within this desire for inequality lies the most egalitarian aspect of competition: a common desire to see the other fail, and through this desire, players can cultivate relationships based off equality and respect.
The desire to hinder an opponent’s success places two competitors on the same emotional level, making them equals in terms of effort and heart. Usually, I am quiet about how I feel. I like to avoid conflict, confrontation, and any other scenarios where I may have to impose my opinion. I agree with the Quaker idea that there is an equally valuable Inner Light in all people, so who am I to deem my opinion more correct than someone else’s? However, when I step onto a field, the spirit of competition takes hold, and I am no longer passive. When I set my sights on stopping a player from succeeding, I put everything I have into achieving that goal. I yell; I clap; I grunt; I get physical. These expressions of emotion do not stem from hate, or some personal dislike for my opponent. They come from a simple need to be better. I attempt to perform better than my opponent, and my competitor responds in a similar fashion. He pushes back; he yells back; he may even give me a look if he knows he beat me on a play. This is all part of good competition. In these moments, we are defined by nothing more than our desire to win and what we are willing to do to fulfill that desire. Similar to how multiplying two negatives produces a positive, our common will to see the other fail produces a relationship in which we are equals, a healthy competition being our bond.
Just like how the competitive fire between two squads dwindles as teams line up to shake hands, the struggle between two players morphs into mutual respect after the game is over. My earlier story is a recent example of experiencing this mutual respect, but from a young age I have been lucky enough to understand the value in these small exchanges. From fifth grade through eighth grade, I participated in organized sports all three seasons during the school year. So far in high school, I participate in athletics two out of the three available seasons. Therefore, I have lined up to shake hands with my opponents dozens and dozens of times after hard fought battles, some ending in exulting wins and others in crushing defeat. During games in middle school, I often found myself competing with an individual on the other team, and at the end of these games, I possessed great feelings of respect and admiration for that person. While I cannot trace it to a specific game or day, I will never forget how it felt the first time an opponent gave me a clap on the back while in our lines saying, “Good game.” It was an intimate moment, a moment that told me we had a contest like no other on the field. It showed me that I did a good job, that not only was I worthy of his respect, but that he desired mine. I was short in middle school. I wasn’t particularly strong or intimidating, but every time I had a special moment in a “good game” line, I felt the bond between me and my opponent on the field harden into a tie governed by respect. In those moments, I felt just as strong, just as fast, and just as skilled as my adversary, because we saw the equality in the level of our competition and heart.
Realizing how others’ small actions of respect in brief moments after contests made an incredible impact on my view of athletics and myself, I now strive to provide that same experience for others by giving claps on the back, calling someone specifically by their number, even giving a subtle head nod or a smile. In those moments, I know that not five minutes prior, I wanted to run that person into the ground. I wanted to get in his head, throw him off his game, stop him from accomplishing his goals every chance I could so that I could accomplish mine. I then think about how he wished that same fate on me. We both wanted to be better than the other. We both wanted our team to come out on top. We both wanted to see our competitor and his team fail miserably so that we could achieve great success. This desire to win, on the team and individual level, is what makes competitors equal. Effort, heart, and sacrifice are not byproducts of skill, athleticism, or strength. No matter a team’s abilities, no matter an individual player’s abilities, this equality of thought and feeling makes any foes engaged in healthy, intense competition equal. From this equality comes respect, an understanding that there is honor in a battle of wills and that a strong competitor deserves to be recognized for that. The relationship between competitors is unique for every pair, for the Light within each athlete is unique and special. Hard, intense, and fair competition allows adversaries to see this and realize that no matter what our differences, we are all equal in more ways than one.