Winner Stays

I wrote the following chapter of the Playground Heaven book for my Dad.  Today is his birthday, so I’m sharing it with you all as a tribute to him.  Please join me in wishing him a happy birthday on his facebook page here.

“I’ll bet you twenty dollars to your one dollar that I can beat you in a mile.” My Dad was forty-years-old, and I was fifteen at the time he issued this challenge. He ran almost every day and was an outstanding athlete in his day. I had just completed my freshman year of high school, where I was a member of the basketball and tennis teams. I was young and confident that there was no way this old man could beat me. He goaded me into accepting the bet by contending that I was in no shape to beat him. Oh, it’s definitely on, old man. The ensuing race shaped the views I have had on the importance of winning and the value of competition ever since.

We set a date that was a couple of weeks away. I knew my dad could run a mile in about six minutes, so I thought I better do a timed practice run to make sure I had a chance. I decided to run four times around the track, one mile in total, in under a minute and a half for each lap, thinking it would be no problem. At the end of the first lap, I was gasping for air and barely made it under the desired time. There was no way I could keep that up. I slowed down to catch my breath and completed the mile in just over seven minutes. This was going to be trouble. I would never hear the end of it if I lost. It was time to practice. I went to the track every day intending to beat my time from the day before. I had two weeks to get it under six minutes.

Race day arrived, and I was feeling good. I knew it was going to be close, but I had given myself a fighting chance with all the hard work. If I could stay close to him throughout the race, maybe I could sprint past him at the end. I thought having the younger legs near the finish would be my only chance. As we began, just as I suspected, he set the pace. It seemed too fast right from the start. I struggled to keep up but knew I should be able to unless he had gotten faster. I really don’t remember much after that until we came around the last bend. I had fallen a few yards behind and decided it was time to go all out. To my surprise, my legs felt fresh, my breathing was relaxed, and I got a sudden burst of energy. I took off as fast as I could go, passed him coming out of the turn, and amazingly, I beat him to the line.

I didn’t expect what happened next. There was no thrill of victory, only relief that there was no agony of defeat. I was glad to have won, yet sad my dad didn’t. I felt satisfaction for having overcome his challenge but realized I had a lot of work in front of me to reach his level of fitness. I was gasping for air while he was breathing normally nearly immediately. He offered congratulations and seemed happy that I had won. It made me wonder if he had let me win. He assured me he hadn’t. I think he was happy to have proved his point and that I had finally beat him at something. As we walked home from the track, I felt strangely melancholy about the whole experience. I should have been on top of the world. I beat my dad. What was wrong with me?

The rest of the day, I couldn’t shake the feeling. I kept telling myself to snap out of it. I went for a run in an attempt to sort out my thoughts. Why was I sad and not glad? Was it because I beat my dad who I respected so much? Was it the realization that he was right about my fitness level? Why was the race so anti-climactic? I had been looking forward to the competition ever since I had realized I had a chance to win. The training had given me confidence. My strategy of staying with him and then out-sprinting him to the line actually worked. I had seen it happen in my mind’s eye and experienced the thrill of victory. Then it hit me. I had visualized it so realistically in my head that it was like it had already happened. I had won the race before it even started. The actual race was nothing more than a replay of the virtual experience. That must have been the reason for my lack of excitement in the moment.

That explanation seemed reasonable, but I knew there was more to it. I went for a run every day that summer, and my thoughts always wandered back to race day. I had to figure out what continued to trouble me about it. I thought a lot about the importance of winning. By now, you know I like those motivational locker room signs. They say, “Play to Win,” and “Winning is Everything,” and “Winning is the Only Thing.” I assumed that since winning was everything, it would result in happiness. I won, so I should be happy, right? I sure was when I was a little kid. Something was wrong.

On the playground, the rule was, “Win to stay in,” or “Winner stays” for short. As long as you kept winning, you got to keep playing. My motivation to win was sky-high because I always wanted to be playing. I hated losing on the playground, but I was happy as long as I was playing. Although I lost nearly every game on the baseball diamond during that same time, I didn’t mind that. I wasn’t happy about it, but it didn’t make me sad. Why not? Maybe since the game ended whether we won or lost? There was no winner stays incentive.

The main thing I realize when I look back is that, as the years went by, my desire to win was never as important as my desire to improve. Winning was nice, but improvement was my goal. I also noticed that by focusing my attention on improving rather than winning, I ended up winning more often. I was happy when I was developing my skills and happiest when that improvement showed itself in competition. As long as I saw improvement, I was okay with losing. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it. It motivated me to continue the quest for improvement. If I competed well, that was a win for me, regardless of the actual outcome. I realized that if I changed my definition of winning to demonstrating improvement, then yes, winning is everything.

This new definition changed everything for me because winning was now always within my control. Some may call my version of winning a moral victory; finding some good in the competition even when officially losing. I see it as a mortal victory. We are all human, mere mortals, and we are going to lose games often in our lifetimes. The best in the world lose occasionally. Even though they have become the best, they still work hard every day to improve. That’s how they became champions, and that’s how they will stay champions. The same holds true for us.

As I began to win more, I started to feel bad for my losing opponents. In fact, if I knew I was going to win easily, I would keep the score close so that my challenger would feel like they had a chance and would keep playing hard. Winning or losing in a blowout is never fun. A game is more fun when the competition is close. I loved the competition and the challenge of winning a close battle, but I was emotionally conflicted whenever I won a tight match. I was thrilled for myself but empathetic toward my opponent, just like I felt in defeating my Dad. I wanted to win, but I didn’t want him to lose.

Next, I thought about how I felt in defeat. If the score was close, and I had given my best effort, I felt fine. I was happy for my opponent and determined to win the next time. Interesting. I’ve been thinking all along in a win-lose mentality; if I win, you lose. But that isn’t necessarily true with my newfound definition of winning. I can lose and still feel like a winner if I demonstrated improvement and gave my best effort. And if that is true for me, it’s true for others. So I don’t need to feel bad for them. Both sides can win.

Let’s see, what does any good parent want for their children? A good parent wants their child to be successful and happy. My dad got both that day. Let’s look at what he got out of the race. By challenging me to a race, he got a kid who realized he was out of shape and did something about it. In fact, I’ve been fit and healthy nearly all of my life because of that one challenge. I ended up with a new definition of winning that has helped me succeed in almost everything I have done ever since. Focusing your efforts on continuously improving yourself is a winning formula for life. Thanks, Dad.

Armed with a new definition of winning, my thoughts turned to the value of competition. I had just seen my mile time improve by a full minute in two weeks. Had I not been issued a competitive challenge, that would have never happened. Maybe I would have never become a lifelong fitness enthusiast. That one competition was life-altering for me. Recalling it solidified my view that competition is a key ingredient to living the Playground Heaven life and achieving the Halo High often. Competition motivates us to improve and improving is winning. Competition creates winners.

From that point forward, in addition to making everything a game, I made everything a competition. Competition makes games more fun. The closer the competition, the more fun the game because competition inspires you to reach higher than you would otherwise. Through competition, we are pushed, and we motivate others to ever-higher levels of performance. Everybody wins in a hard-fought competition.

I do realize there are those who see competition as something to be avoided nowadays. They don’t like that some will have their feelings hurt when they fail to win. They see competition as a win-lose proposition and tie it to self-esteem. They fear losing and thereby avoid competition altogether. Or they give everyone a participation trophy. It seems they think that competitive people are horrible, terrible, no good, very bad people who will lie, cheat, and even steal from their mothers to win. They think they will do anything to win and that they don’t care who they hurt along the way. I suppose those people do exist, but they certainly aren’t the norm.

I believe this anti-competitive mindset only sets us up for failure. We will never become all we were born to be by avoiding competition. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this competition called life. We can play to win by striving to improve, or we can settle for good enough. But you weren’t meant to be mediocre, and you will always know you could have been more. It is impossible to shake that unfulfilled feeling of knowing you should do more and be more. If you think you are avoiding potential disappointment by avoiding competition, please think again.

See it for what it truly is, an opportunity to push yourself to become your best, and to help others do the same. I see the real competition as between the person I am, and the person I am capable of becoming. When we all compete to win, we all win by continually improving. We win by working together to push each other to higher levels of performance than we could achieve on our own. There is no thrill greater than working hard to achieve something difficult and succeeding. It is the ultimate Halo High.

Here’s another definition of winning for your consideration: striving to be your best and give your best for the benefit of others. The object of the game of life is to develop our talents, serve others, and behave virtuously. How are you doing? Are you winning? We are all running this race called life as members of the same team, the human race team. Winning is making the world a better and happier place. If we all do our part, we can make that happen. Keep playing and striving to improve. Win every day; do something to get better than you were yesterday. Challenge others to do the same. Improving is winning, and winning is fun.

Now for the rest of the dad race story. Ten years later, when I was twenty-five years old and he was fifty, we ran a 20 kilometer (12.4 mile) race together. We finished with an identical time of one hour and thirty-seven minutes. I know beyond a reasonable doubt that he could have easily won that day, but he chose to run for a tie. I consider it a win for him, tying us one-one in our head-to-head lifetime running match-up. It was the last official race we ran. But, and I hate to admit this, I ran the same 20 kilometer race when I was fifty years old. My time was two hours and three minutes, a full twenty-six minutes behind the time my dad ran at the same age. I concede. Dad, you win two-one. Wait, you’re eighty-six now, and I’m only sixty-one. Want a chance to get your twenty dollars back?

Happy Birthday, Dad!  Love, Scott

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