COMPETITION IS “the name of the game” when athletes from all over the world to vie for the coveted medals of the Olympic Games.
What is the key to winning in competitive sports? And, more important, how do athletes cope with the stress caused by years of training and preparation culminating in one gigantic attempt to be acclaimed the best in the world? What can we learn from them that will apply to competition in business, in school, in society and in many facets of modern-day living?
My husband and I visited Lake Placid, N.Y., a few months after the Winter Olympics were held there in 1980. Having watched much of the action on television, we were especially interested in visiting the ski jumps, Whiteface Mountain, the ice arena and the bobsled and luge runs. And we recalled some of the outstanding events.
One of the high points of the Winter Olympics, certainly for American sports enthusiasts, was the victory of the U.S. hockey team. Playing against the Russian team, considered “number one” in the world, the relatively young and inexperienced U.S. hockey team triumphed, winning first place against all the odds. One television commentator said, “It’s like a college football team from Canada beating the Pittsburgh Steelers!”
How did these young people come out victorious in this competition? What was their secret?
In watching the game, my husband and I noticed that the American coach kept calling out, “Play your game!” Since this is what they were obviously doing, we wondered why he kept repeating, “Play your game!” Later we found out. This was his way of reminding them to play as they had been taught, to remain calm, not to be stampeded by the Russians. In other words, he was reminding the players, “Don’t let the opponents determine your game.” By remaining true to their own training and play, they won.
Eric Heiden, the speed skater from the U.S., told a similar story of good coaching from the sidelines. On the first turn in one race, the Soviet skater cut in front of him. Reacting automatically, he thought, “I’ll have to fight for it on the next turn.” But as he passed his coach, the coach called out, “Skate your own race!” — a reminder not to let someone else determine his performance.
He went back to the long, smooth glides that he had practiced so conscientiously, and he went on to win his fifth gold medal. He not only won first place again — he set a new world record, by skating his own race.
Had these athletes competed in the sense of contending against an adversary, the story might have been different. But, reminded by their coaches, they continued to do the job as they knew how to do it, refusing to be stampeded into stress and contention.
In its original meaning, the word “compete” is derived from the Latin words meaning “to seek together” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, Concise Edition, 1958, p. 153). When each individual is striving for individual excellence, then any activity can become a factor in individual growth and unfoldment, and the stress of looking to see what the opposition is doing will be avoided. Concentration on the job at hand is a key to accomplishment.
Even among the disciples of Jesus Christ, there was some contention for the most prominent place. In the human way of thinking these is always the desire to be first. There is also the tendency to check up to see what others are doing, whether they are competitors in a race or employees of the same company.
After the resurrection, on one occasion seven of the disciples found Jesus on the beach, waiting for them, with breakfast prepared. (They had been fishing all night, without success).
After they had eaten, Jesus gave Peter, who had denied him three times, the opportunity to reaffirm his love for the Master. Three times He asked Peter if he loved Him, and three times the big fisherman replied in the affirmative. And each time Jesus game him an instruction. Peter was to: “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15 RSV), “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16 RSV) and “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17 RSV). Jesus concluded the instructions to Peter with the words, “Follow me.” (John 21:19 RSV) The assignment was clear.
But Peter, not satisfied with his own work, looked around and saw John. “Lord, what about this man?” (John 21:21 RSV), he asked. The human, competitive spirit was still active.
Then Jesus gave one of His greatest instructions for avoiding stressful and competitive activity. He asked, “What is that to you? Follow me!” (John 21:22 RSV), reiterating the instruction He had given earlier.
It was Peter’s job to continue the work Jesus had started by following the Christ, not be checking up on the “competition”.
But this is also good advice for us today.
Do we ever look around to see what salary others are receiving, in comparison with our own? What about those times when we complain that we are burdened with work while others are failing to carry their weight?
Jesus’ advice to Peter is just as good for us today.
“What is that to you?” (John 21:22 RSV). As a reminder, perhaps we should ask ourselves this question when we find that we are becoming caught up in what the others are doing, instead of concentrating on our own assignment in life.
We all have work to do here on earth. We all are here for a purpose. And a part of that purpose includes using our talents and abilities in such a way that we will achieve excellence in our own area of endeavor. Whatever our work, we are to do it well, as though we were doing it for God (as we are). Whether we are cheering a friend or supervising a great undertaking, our best work will be done when we are following the Christ of our own nature, not trying to contend with others or even compare our efforts with what they are doing. In the Spirit of God within us is all we need to excel, and when we practice individual excellence, we will be successful in outer ways as well.
No job is too great if the Spirit of Truth within us is urging us on to a worthwhile goal. Whatever we can see ourselves doing, we can do! And even our greatest accomplishments should simply be incentives to choose and reach higher aims and goals.
When Jesus said, “Follow me” (John 21:19 RSV), He was speaking not as the Man, but as the Christ, the Spirit of God within. And we will accomplish most when we follow the instruction and look first to the Christ of our own nature, the Spirit of God within us, the “image and likeness” spiritual person that we are all designed to call forth.
If we listen to the voices of the world, we will hear all sorts of instructions. We will be told that we must vie with others for business, we must take advantage of the other person before he takes advantage of us, or we must check on what the competition is doing in order to make our own plans.
None of this is true. If we, instead, learn to listen to the Christ, the One within us who has all the answers for us, we will learn that it is not necessary for us to be concerned about what others are doing or may do in the situation. By following the Christ, we will always be happy and successful, and we will avoid much stress and strain in the process.
It is significant that three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” (John 21:16 RSV), and each time the disciple affirmed his love.
So we should ask ourselves from time to time if we truly love God — first and foremost. Or are we more interested in our personal power and position? Do we covet what another has in the way of material possessions? If we focus our attention on the things and activities of the outer world first, we will always suffer from stressful feelings and continual competition. (Even the one who is at the top is fearful of being toppled by another ambitious individual.)
But if we truly love God and work for Him, under His guidance and direction, we have nothing to fear from others. We will always be in our right place, fulfilling our right function in life. There is no stress in the love of God. There is no strain when we work for Him only. There is only trust and freedom. So we can make it easy on ourselves by working for God, as Peter had to learn to carry on Jesus’ work, without regard for the assignments of the other disciples.
Strangely enough, the lower forms of life on this planet do look to God, their own innate intelligence, for the pattern of their lives. The rose fulfills the pattern of a rose, without regard for the morning glory blossoming nearby. Both grass and dandelions go about their business of living and growing in their own way.
But when we get to the highest form of life, to the human being who has the power to choose for himself, we find that many times the individual decides to judge by the world’s view and compete on the materialistic level, rather than turn to the innate pattern of perfection for the divine design for living and growth, for becoming that which we are all destined to be.
Competition in the sense of contention is always the result of looking to see what others are doing, instead of fulfilling our own assignment to the best of our ability and leaving others free to do the same.
When Jesus dealt with Peter, He was giving pointers for living without stress and strain. He was instructing the disciple in such a way that he could cope with thoughts of competition and learn to live his own life victoriously, without the pressures so many suffer in human thinking. He was instructing us as well, because the ideas that worked for Peter apply to us today.
Release mistakes of the past — yours and others’.
Competition and its resulting ills of inharmony and strain are rooted in comparison. People may compete with others viciously in order to overcome some sense of dissatisfaction with themselves, translating disappointment with what they have done into antagonism against someone else.
An example of this might be the person who always feels that others are against him, because of something he did in the past. So he fights for survival, thinking he is doing it in self-defense. Actually, the best defense is a complete release of past mistakes and a new way of life patterned on a different plan.
Others might revel in self-pity, because of lost opportunities or seeming failure.
Someone such as Peter, who had made a great error in the fear and strong emotion of the moment, might be so lacking in self-confidence that he would not dare to trust himself again, letting his past record determine his continuing activity of failure and frustration.
Jesus recognized this, and, in His loving way, helped Peter to re-affirm his devotion.
The Bible story doesn’t tell us what Peter was feeling when he saw Jesus from the boat, but there must have been some sense of unworthiness and guilt, which Jesus recognized and took steps to correct.
At first the disciples didn’t know Jesus. The Man on the beach suggested that they cast the net on the right side of the boat, even though they hadn’t caught any fish all night. They did, and immediately their net was full of fish. At that point John cried, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7 RSV).
Peter reacted in his usual impulsive way. Instead of waiting for the boat to reach the shore, he jumped into the sea and swam to where Jesus was waiting. He was expressing his enthusiasm and his love by the rush to reach the shore, but at the same time there must have been some feeling of guilt and shame that Jesus knew must be corrected.
Three times Peter declared his love for Jesus, in answer to Jesus’ questions, matching the times that he had denied the Master. Then He was cleansed of the negative feelings about the past and free to do the work of carrying the Jesus Christ message to the rest of the world.
We cannot achieve what we are destined to do until we do let go of the past errors and comparisons in mind so that we can concentrate on the next job at hand.
Suppose we had some failure in the past. It doesn’t have to hold us back in the present, and it needn’t result in a competitive feeling against others. We can be freed, as Peter was freed.
Many competitive stresses are brought about by memories of what others have done in the past. We are not to let others take advantage of us, but we should give them the same opportunity to make amends that we would want for ourselves. After all, Jesus forgave Peter’s errors and gave him an important assignment, when Peter had proved his change of heart and good intentions.
Play your game — one step at a time.
After we have corrected the errors of the past in our thinking, we can get on with the job at hand, by doing our best under the circumstances.
Eric Heiden had to skate his own race in his own way in order to win the fifth Olympic gold medal. The U.S. hockey team had to play their game, not a game that was dictated by the competition, in order to triumph. So we must learn to do whatever we are guided to do, without checking up to see what others are doing.
In the world’s way, we may be told about how much others are selling or what the competitors are doing to increase business. We may be involved in competition for prizes or offered incentives to greater achievement in a planned program.
Actually, we do not need to resist the outer forms of competition, any more than Heiden had to resist the moves of the other skater. But our greatest reward will not come from winning a prize and being on top of the chart, but rather from feeling a sense of joy in our own achievement and realization of our own powers and abilities at work. When we are doing our best, according to our inner guidance and spiritual training, we will always be successful, whether others recognize our efforts or not.
A friend of ours is a college basketball star. Frequently he is high scorer on the team or in the conference.
One rime my husband asked him how he dealt with the stress of the game, how he felt when he was in competition.
He replied, “I know what I can do, and I just go out and do it.”
He went on to explain that he might not always make the basket, and the team might not always win the game. But he avoids stress by doing his best, releasing it and then going on to the next game.
There is always a “next game” for all of us when we are willing to do our best and refuse to compare our achievements with others.
Follow the Christ.
Within each person there is God’s own Spirit, His image and likeness that was implanted in the beginning. This is the Christ. Our Elder Brother, Jesus, came to show us how to discover and demonstrate the activity of the Christ, God within us, and then, speaking from the Christ of His own nature, He invited us all, “Follow me.” (John 21:19 RSV)
We all are here for a purpose. We all have a part to fulfill in God’s overall plan. This part is certainly greater than the competitive attitude that may lead us to think of others as adversaries. As we open ourselves to God’s plan for us, we can leave others free to do the same, in the realization that God needs all of us, and that His work will never be done until each one learns to do whatever it is that he is to accomplish.
We make life easier for ourselves when we stop trying to think of coping in a competitive society, but rather of simply letting God work through us. When we are open and receptive channels, God’s ideas and God’s love will flow through us in such a way that we will find a continuous joy in our Work and a satisfactory reward as well.
As Charles Fillmore wrote, “All work becomes divine for man when he affirms that he is working for God and that God is a generous paymaster.” (Keep A True Lent 107)
Much stress is the result of trying to make things happen. We can avoid it by turning to God frequently in prayer for direction and guidance. As we follow the instruction from within, we can then let God find expression through us. We no longer have to try to force our own human ideas. God’s plan carries within it the seeds of fulfillment, and as we follow the way, we find that there is no competition. There is simply the one-pointedness that Jesus demonstrated so beautifully.
Making things happen results in tension and fatigue. Letting things happen through us, according to the pattern revealed from within, relieves the tension and dissolves the stress.
Peter had many lessons to learn as he assumed leadership in the early Christian movement. One of the lessons was that he must look to God first and then follow the inner Spirit of Truth. Later he made it easier on himself by trusting this guidance.
Turning within can relieve many of the pressures of daily living, with its challenging incidents involving human relationships, prosperity needs and so on.
One time in my life, when many things seemed to pile up involving other persons and situations, I went apart and asked God, “Why do we have so many things to meet?”
The answer came almost immediately as I listened. The words flashed into my mind, almost as though someone had spoken them, “Because you can handle them.” With the answer came the reassurance I needed.
At the time I didn’t know just how a certain situation was going to work out, but I put God in charge and listened for His guidance. As we went along, each step was revealed. Sometimes I was given the words to speak. Other times I knew exactly the amount of money that was right. And, as I went forward, others began to fall in with the plans, until the whole situation was resolved.
It didn’t happen all at once. But, under God’s guidance, it did unfold. And, while it was coming about, I was calm and faith-filled as I trusted the Spirit within — as I followed the Christ.
When we put our lives in God’s care and choose to follow the Christ, we may not see the whole picture clearly, but we will be shown each step as we reach that point. When we ask, we will receive not only the guidance, but also the reassurance that we need.
In God’s universe there is no competition. There are simply many facets of creation, each designed to fulfill a certain function. When we learn to listen and obey, to unfold God’s plan through our lives, we will compete only in the sense of bettering yesterday’s performance, “seeking together” for excellence. And we will accomplish without stress or strain.
© 1985, Winifred Wilkinson Hausmann
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.