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Sederquist: Life’s training ground needs true competition

Ryan Sederquist
Valley Voices

Pop quiz:

  1. Who won the Colorado State Championship in 3A basketball in 2017?
  2. How about the last World Cup?
  3. Who was the NFL MVP … in 2012?

Students: “When are we ever going to use this?”

When the curtain closed on the Tokyo Olympics earlier this summer, most of us were admittedly asleep in the theater. Actually, most checked out before intermission.



Ordinarily, the “thrill of victory and agony of defeat” collectively captivate a global audience as nations unify — finally — at the foot of the hollowed five rings. 2020 failed to be ordinary, so unsurprisingly, its games followed suit, even with a year delay.

As ratings plummeted, internet trolling skyrocketed. Social media became an exorbitant aggregate of vitriol, buttered with critiques of every marquee athlete’s on and off-the-field movements. “I guess the Olympics are ruined, too,” hung a distraught thought bubble at the conclusion of 17 days, precariously loitering somewhere between my brain, my mouth, and my heart.

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Then I realized something. Perhaps Tokyo’s stark actualization of predictably poor broadcasts, drab, empty stadiums, and a globally apathetic disposition from viewers was a poignant reminder of a much greater reality: Basking in glorious victory is a fleeting enterprise. It always was, even for those whose global sporting events we all did tune into. (How’d that pop quiz go?)

Before aiming your pitchforks at sports and competition altogether, consider this claim: Outcome isn’t ultimate, but it is necessary, because true competition provides the structure for extracurriculars to serve their foundational purpose — helping young people define and pursue true success, now and for a lifetime.

Pierre de Courbertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, once said, “The important thing in life is not to triumph, but to compete.” I wish he had added this: The important thing about competing is learning what it means to triumph.

John Wooden, a man who perhaps experienced more outcome-based success than any other athlete and coach, but somehow managed to never utter the word “win” in his locker room, defined success sufficiently, stating, “(Success) is the peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you gave 100% effort to do the best of which you’re capable.”

Sports — and any extracurricular — is about teaching young people how to define success in this way and honing the skills to pursue it. Chemical engineering is not learned on the soccer field, but the skills necessary to master it — and any other content — are, provided the coach is intentional.

Competition does matter, though. David Light Shields’ text, “True Competition: A Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport and Society” deftly distinguishes decompetition — “a winning-at-all-costs conquest” — from “true” competition. The former is what most associate with contests in general, while the latter is an embodiment of the latin root ‘competere,’ which means “to strive together,” and is characterized by two parties collectively striving towards a common goal — true success.

The mutual pursuit of Wooden idealism drives true competitors to elevate each other to otherwise unreachable heights. In light of this definition, one hopefully recognizes the positive impact and essential nature of healthy competition. Having a winner is important — not because winning is important — but because the goal of winning breeds true competition, which fosters flourishing individuals and teams.

We quickly forget Colorado high school state champions (remember this before arguing with a ref at the fourth regular season game). Same goes for the World Cup, NFL, and yes, even the Olympics.

Can you imagine if this Olympics had been the one you dedicated your whole life to? The one no one watched or cared about? Would it make the arduous athletic journey required to arrive at that point … pointless? For me, the answer is, of course not. If recognition or legacy had been the chief concern, and the end goal glory and fame, well, maybe Adrian Peterson (No. 3 on the pop quiz … I’m a Vikings fan) would answer differently.

And yet, we mere mortals — those of us athletes disguised as middle class employees, parents, and students — feel torn. We connect with Wooden’s words but simultaneously wonder if draping the ethereal gold medal around our necks would solve all of our problems.

Tokyo reminded me to maintain the faith.

These Olympics symbolized a key truth for athletes young and old: the epilogue to a lifetime of training and racing, striving and grinding, losing and winning, never culminates with the view from the top of a podium — even if you are fortunate enough to get there, and even if a crowd is present to laud your lunge up said secular pinnacle.

The true apotheosis of sport — for both the Olympic champion, the CHSSA athlete, and the masterblaster training for the local 5K — is the realization and utilization of the game, which is just a game, to develop one’s ability to pursue true success, in the most Woodenian sense of the word.

Today’s most worn-out classroom refrain drones on from students in these words: “When will I ever need to use this?”

Use what? Goal setting? Critical thinking? Introspective analysis? Being self taught or knowing how to overcome obstacles?

Every day. Every career. This is why, in my classroom, mastery of content finds its value in mastery of mastery. It’s why I would implore coaches and directors to adopt a mindset of fostering true competition to ensure the focus in athletics and the arts is one of maximizing potential. Mastering the aria is a vehicle for mastering motherhood. Conquering the concerto prepares one to conquer the MCAT.

Winning in the sporting arena is the goal which makes athletics a vehicle for success in a much bigger arena: life.


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