For more than twenty years I have volunteered at local high schools to coach students in writing and delivering speeches. Mostly my coaching has been to prepare them for speech competitions. I have enjoyed every minute of it. Working with the students takes me back to my high school days when I was a member of the speech club and participated in speech competition sponsored by the National Forensic League.
Last year I worked with five students from SOAR (Students on Academic Rise) High School in Lancaster, California, to prepare them for a speech contest sponsored by a national association; the topic was on leadership. I began with a couple of socratic sessions on the meaning and examples of leadership. The students then researched and wrote their speeches. We then worked on presentation skills--voice, gestures and movement, storytelling, and humor.
During one practice session, a student asked as to how fair or meaningful the contest could be if they all had a chance to hear each other's speech. I responded that they were to support and root for each other. I exhorted, "When you are on the stage, you are to perform as though you own it and no one but you has any business being on that stage. Then when you are off the stage, you are to cheer the other person on to their best performance."
It turned out that my five students were the only participants in the first of four levels of the speech contest. Though the contest was open to all high schools, there was not a representative from other than SOAR. Two SOAR students were able to move on to the next level of competition. One of those two competed in the third level before she lost. The other students continued to support their fellow students until all had been eliminated from competition.
How do you make competition meaningful?
Making each moment meaningful is a choice to be the captain of the ship that carries you through the adventures of your life. You may not always control the circumstances of your journey, but you always control the benefits that you gain from your sojourn. Because everything that you do involves interaction with other people, a commitment to making the moment meaningful is also a commitment to help others to do the same. This is true even if you are engaged in an activity in which you are competing against another person.
Competition has pervaded every aspect of our lives. It has spread far beyond the field of athletic prowess. Politicians compete for constituents' votes and campaign contributions. Businesses compete for dollars and market share. Advertisers compete for eyeballs. In our education system, private schools compete against public schools, teachers compete for merit pay, and students compete for grades, awards, and scholarships. Schools sponsor competition in sports, cheer leading, dance, spelling, speech, science fairs, robotics, and more. Pilots compete in air shows, drivers compete on race tracks, and farmers compete in milking, hog calling, and cow- chip throwing. Religious institutions compete to see who has the largest membership and the biggest facility. Even parents compete in child rearing as they proudly show pictures of Jerry in the gymnasium, Pat at the piano, and Stacy on stage. There is no organized rules for the latter competition, but you know you're in it from the one-upmanship conversation.
We are obsessed with competition. The obsession drives us to lie to constituents, destroy the opponent, cook the books, cause injury to the competitor, copy someone's work, steal a secret, hide information, and use a banned substance. We will break the rules and compromise our principles just to get a win or to be first.
Contrary to what our elected officials would want us to believe, competition is not the solution to every problem in our society. In fact, competition itself is a societal problem when it drives one to unethical behavior.
You and I and our society can benefit from competition when the competition is meaningful. It is meaningful when it contributes to the fulfillment of your purpose, affords you the opportunity to grow, strengthens your connection to others, illuminates the characteristics that define who you are, and facilitates the same benefits for the person against whom you are competing.
Contributing toward the fulfillment of your purpose. Your purpose for competing must be greater than an interest in winning or being first. If your only go is to be in front of everybody else, you will easily be lured into unethical behavior to maintain such position. The question you must have answered in your mind as you compete is how you will use the win ... the award ... the trophy ... the crown ... the recognition ... to enhance your life and the lives of those with whom you are connected. If you are able to brag that you are the best in a particular activity but the activity does not fulfill your purpose, then your participation in the activity will have been a distraction from the fulfillment of purpose. If you have not yet discovered or clearly defined your purpose, the competition can be meaningful if you use it to discover a talent or special ability that you have. Discovering your talents and abilities is a step toward discovering purpose.
Affording you the opportunity to grow. When you look beyond the prize to the product of your effort and you see growth, your competition is meaningful. Improvement can result from a competitive activity when it pushes you to reach deep insight for strength and will that you had not previously known. When competition sharpens your skills it is meaningful. When you learn from your experience, you have grown from the competition. In other words, when strengthening, sharpening, and learning occurs, competition is meaningful even if you don't win the first-place prize.
Strengthening your connection to others. Competition is an opportunity to connect. You connect with your team members in a multiple-person activity. Working with team members offers the opportunity to recognize varying skills and to support others toward a common objective. You can also connect with the person against whom you are competing. Meeting and becoming acquainted with a person of a similar interest and/or skill can be the seed that develops into a meaningful relationship. Joe came in second place to me in one of my speech contests; Joe later became my mentor when I established my professional speaking business. You need not compete with animosity toward your opponent. Affinity is meaningful.
Illuminating the characteristics that define you. Everything that you do defines who you are. If you cheat, you are a cheater. If you lie, you are a liar. If you steal, you are a thief. If you hide or withhold information that should be known to all players, you are a defrauder. Winning by cheating, lying, stealing, or defrauding does not make the moment meaningful. If you play by the rules even if you can get away with breaking them, you are a person of integrity. The meaningfulness of competition is in the integrity of the game.
Facilitating meaningfulness for others. The meaningfulness of any competitive activity is demonstrated by progress in or enhancement of the activity and those who engage in it. Any progress or enhancement that you may gain from competing is negated if in the process you diminish or destroy your opponent. Competing meaningfully means to compete with the goal of building up you, your competitor, and the activity in which the two of you are involved. The moment must be meaningful to all who are involved.
You ought not shy away from competition. It can be the inducement for you to put forth the extra effort that will get you over the top. There may be times when you don't feel like giving it your best. You may not always be in top physical condition. Sometimes your mind will be distracted from the purpose of your endeavor. At times you may be emotionally drained from all in which you are involved. The need to maintain a competitive edge will, however, motivate you to work despite these adverse conditions.
You can retain the competitive edge by maintaining a standard of excellence. You should not compete to outdo your opponent but rather to excel your own performance. Then you are competing meaningfully.