I’ve often wondered why we, as people, love competition. We crave it, which is why the March Madness NCAA Tournament draws more people each year than any other sporting event on the planet. People who never watch sports will fill out a bracket and start following their teams, and tournament games become legendary for a heroic last second shot or a victory by a huge underdog.
For most people, I imagine the thrill is in the adrenaline rush of a close game, the knots in the stomach from the insurmountable pressure or the history in watching a 15-seed knock of a 2-seed. For me, the beauty of competition is the revelation of a person’s character, in how they prepare for the game, how they play the game, and how they respond to the outcome of the game.
This weekend, I had the opportunity to partake in a little competition with my friends, experiencing night orienteering for the first time. If you’ve never done this before, here is a quick recap of what goes down at one of these events: the goal is to find as many hidden targets spread throughout 10-15 acres of land with only the use a small map, a compass and a flashlight. There is a lot of running involved, and it is a timed event with penalties for arriving back at base late.
It all seemed pretty casual as teams registered for the event: cookies and pretzels available, chairs for people to sit and chat, lots of laughter. I was enjoying the relaxed atmosphere in the company of great friends. Then it got closer to the starting time. Everyone headed outside into the dark with head lamps and running shoes and spandex. The starter began shouting the count down timer. “One minute!” Then a little louder, “Thirty seconds!” I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins. “10-9-8-7-6…” I was expecting a gun to go off, and I was so ready for that.
We took off running through a field, then through some woods and finally onto a trail in search for the first target. What had been a relaxing, enjoyable evening to that point quickly became a fierce battle to find the 18 targets plotted on our map. We went down steep hills, through thorn-infested vegetation and muddy swamp like fields. As our time began to dwindle from 90 minutes down to 30, then 20, our intensity to find the last 8 targets was every bit as great as I remember it being during the Final Four game I played in back in ’97. We were so focused, our communication was on point, and we devised a plan on the go to achieve our goals.
As our time remaining reached five minutes and we found the final target, we began an all-out sprint (or whatever we had left in the tank) to head back to base camp. My days as a cross-country runner in high school came back to me like an old friend, and I found myself concentrating on my breathing and my arms pumping to get me back in time so we weren’t late. As I reached the finish line, I felt this amazing sense of accomplishment that we had worked together and found all of the targets we set out to find in the time allotted.
There are many among us who believe competition is a bad thing – that is causes people to treat others poorly or to have a win-at-all-cost mentality, hurting others on their way to success. Granted, these unfortunate things do happen, but it’s not because competition is bad, but rather that people have bad character. They treat others poorly or hurt others because they don’t have compassion on others. It’s the ones who can win with humility and lose with grace that we admire the most, and they had this character long before the game ever began.
Maybe it’s time for you to find a way to be competitive again, because there is nothing quite like competition to show the character of a person.