It’s how you codify formal rules for an invented game and enforce them no matter the social cost
It is inspiring to witness the competitive fire of a professional athlete—the strain, the emotion and the unflinching will to win. It is somewhat less inspiring to witness this same quality in a middle-aged man playing Ping-Pong against a nine-year-old girl.
And yet there I was, paddle raised to deliver the decisive smash. It was match point, after all—no time to worry about feelings. Some will find this mortifying. The competitive among you will be thinking: FINISH HER!
As my shot cleared the net, I envisioned victory. I would keep it classy, I told myself—just two or three exclamations of “In your face!” and a moderate amount of breakdancing. And that’s when I noticed the ball zinging past my ear, a laser return that my goddaughter would follow with two aces to win the match. I offered a weak and wholly insincere word of congratulations. She was too busy doing the Macarena and rhyming my surname with “suck.”
For the longest time, I didn’t think of myself as a competitive person—although I was always pretty competitive about that, which should have been a clue. For instance, it was always important to me to appear to be the least competitive person in my circle of friends.
Friend: I lost at Scrabble but it’s no big deal.
Me: Oh yeah? Well, I lost by more at Scrabble and it’s even less of a deal to me. CHECK AND MATE.
Summertime can bring out the worst in the competitive person—for this is the season of the casual game of badminton, the friendly game of horseshoes and the laid-back game of bocce that I ruined by cussing at my aunt and kicking all the balls into the petunias.
It doesn’t help that I surround myself with people of a similar bent. Last summer, my 12-year-old son spent a couple hours constructing a four-hole mini-golf course along the beach. He really got into it, building water hazards, bunkers and hills. As the sun set, we gathered to play a round using driftwood as clubs and shells or stones as balls. Friends and family together, it was a picture-perfect holiday vignette.
Until my friend William’s shell rolled into the ocean. “I get a free drop,” he said.
“Fat chance: Salt water is a one-stroke penalty.”
And on it went, until the magic of the moment had faded, the children had wandered off and the bickering grown-ups were left to finish the game using the flashlight from an iPhone.
Did I win? What’s important is that we spent time together strengthening our bond of friendship and—fine, I lost. Which explains why I spent much of the winter codifying the formal rules of Beach Mini-Golf. (Just wait until William treats a crab as a loose impediment—TWO-STROKE PENALTY, CHEATY McCHEATER!)
Anyway, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that being over-competitive sours most of my sports-based interactions. It’s much worse than that.
A few years ago, we got together with friends for a lunch of homemade tacos. I said, “These are great tacos.” To which someone else replied: “I love them more than you do—I could eat, like, six of these.”
Fast-forward to preparations for this summer’s Fourth Annual Taco Eating Contest, which now includes a judge, an official scorer and—one time—the copious vomiting of a preteen! To be clear about it: A pubescent boy, inspired to overeat by the character failings of his adult role models, was reduced to barfing up mucho taco—and the first thought that passed through my mind was: “Awesome, now I can’t finish last.”
As a coach, I tell kids that a competitive spirit can reveal and develop noble qualities such as leadership, resilience and heart. Unless we happen to be playing Monopoly at the time, in which case I tell them: YOU’RE GOING DOWN.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.