Monday, May 5, 2008

Compassion vs. Competition

Competition is derived from the Latin, competere, which means "to strive for together." Compassion is also from a Latin word, compati, meaning "to suffer with." They both feature the "com-" prefix, meaning "together." And both of these concepts can translate into the setting of say, a badminton tournament, where players are both suffering and striving together -- to win.

But the questions I had to ask myself at the last tournament in Fort Collins were: Is it possible to be compassionate in the midst of competition? Or is the "killer instinct" necessary to become a winner?

Here is the scenario: Last time, Michala and I had played a tournament together in the B bracket at the Colorado Open. In our first match we got summarily trounced by a guy who was clearly an A-level player; and his daughter, who was clearly inexperienced (not to mention like 12 years old) and probably a C or below. We kind of avoided smashing at the girl, since she was young and it seemed kind of wrong. But we paid for it by losing the match. Our compassion for the opponent cost us the match; or at least it cost us a bunch of points, which is the currency of badminton medals.

This time at the Fort Collins Open, we played down a level, in the C-bracket, thinking we would have a better chance at winning. But, the lesson from our last tournament came back to us in a new and diabolical form. This time, our opponents were a really good woman, paired with a beginner guy. I had talked briefly with the guy earlier and knew he was a newbie, and we'd also seen them play together. So from a purely strategic point of view, we realized we had to play the guy as much as possible, and avoid hitting to the woman who could probably return anything we threw at her. Which is exactly what we did. I felt slightly sorry for the guy as we were hitting and smashing at him, but we were winning, and I figured that it was all in the name of competition, so let 'em have it.

OK, the game was won and we moved on. We were going to be in the finals! Yay! But wait. Here comes the guy from the previous game, walking over to me. I said Hi. But he was mad at me. He said I was "unprofessional" and played with poor character. He said he is good at pool, but if we were playing pool he would not treat me the same way. I didn't know what to say so I said I was sorry. The slight twinge of guilt I had during the match with him and his partner suddenly mutated into a giant guilt-monster. I had caused this guy to have a bad time, and it was because of trying to be competitive.

He was suffering alone by losing, thus there was a lack of compassion there from me. But were he and I both striving for the same thing, i.e. competing? I was striving to win. Was he merely striving to have fun? And is that really in the spirit of the overall tournament setting? His comment about pool made me wonder: if I was in a pool tournament with the guy, would he really not try to beat me, and instead play down or let me win? Probably not. (I am bad at pool anyway, so it is a valid hypothetical situation -- not that he knew that.)

In the finals, we faced a team of a high level male player, and his wife, who was not as good. We knew to play the woman as much as possible, but we wound up not being able to do that very effectively. Not because we felt bad about doing it, it was just that the guy was much better. So we got the silver medal, which was great, and we felt we'd earned it, especially because of the final match, which went to 3 games (you play best of 3).

It might just be that there are no clear lines here. We have another tournament coming up on Sunday, and hopefully we can continue to learn from our experiences. This time we have decided to play in the B bracket again, to test ourselves.

Is playing to win a sin? Honestly, I don't think so, as long as we are growing and learning and suffering along with everyone else while striving to get better. But I still feel for the guy.


Susan said...

Ben, a lovely piece with a translation element of two kinds--the compassion/competition roots thing and the pool/badminton faux comparison. In a normal game of badminton you would played to help the guy, not beat him like a drum. My neighbor Mary at 83 pretty much always beat me at tennis but it was all fun and I was learning with every shot (in or out). Remeber when you whizzed a ball back at her doubles partner who chastised you! Mary wouldn't have minded.
Anyway very nice job and interesting questions: send to all the competitors you know incl Jon and Toby and Vince and Roy and Ted (last 2 football players of the 20th and 21st century).
Let mine be the first of many comments---oh it should be "if we WERE playing pool," subjunctive.

Toby said...

I think that the poor sportsmanship is on his part for taking you to task. If he doesn't want to have the bird hit at him, don't play. Not to sound too cold hearted, but you enter a sporting event to compete, if not to win. As long as you were not verbally abusing this guy or celebrating wildly when he made a mistake, I don't see what you have to be sheepish about. Compassion comes when you buy him a beer afterwards.