Compete Selflessly

by Ryan Krzykowski

Sorry if I’m stepping on your toes with this, but I typically am not a fan of beginning a speech or blog post by giving the dictionary’s definition of a word.  Seems a little cliche.  That’s why I can’t believe I’m about to do this:

COMPETE: strive to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others who are trying to do the same.

At Community for Coaches, we are at one of the very best times in the calendar.  In early October, coaches in newly launched Coaching Life Groups are writing and/or revisiting their Coaching Purpose Statements.  One of the greatest joys in my job, and really my life, is helping coaches condense all their great thoughts about why they coach into one sentence.  Sometimes they are long sentences, but one sentence nonetheless.

Last week, in a group meeting we worked on a coach’s statement, listening as he began by declaring his desire to mentor young men.  I love that word, “mentor”.  He went on to explain a commitment to teaching athletes to work hard, to strive, to push themselves and each other.  Essentially, to compete.  As the group discussed more of what this particular coach had to share, we came up with this:

I coach to mentor young men: to help them deal with adversity, compete selflessly, and positively impact the lives of others.

After the initial version of that statement was shared, we kind of looked at each other and realized that we may have hit on a fairly significant idea.  It was the phrase “compete selflessly”.  The idea that I can push myself and strive for excellence, but do so in a way that is not self-seeking or self-glorifying is one that I don’t typically associate with the word “compete”.  Historically, when I think about what it means to compete, I default to the dictionary definition and want to establish my superiority over others.

Interestingly, as evidenced in this post by Julia Tomiak, “compete” originates in Latin and could more literally be defined as “to come together to improve”.  The idea of competing selflessly seems like it runs contrary to what we usually think of with competition.  However, if we dig just a little deeper, it’s a phrase that could have a dramatic impact on a team.  Notice, the Latin definition doesn’t say “come together to get worse, or go soft”, it talks about making the effort to improve.  We know that improvement involves major effort, therefore genuine competition must involve major effort.  But positioning competition as something we can do selflessly to elevate others puts an entirely different spin on the idea — an idea that we may have culturally warped.