Friday, September 11, 2009

Soul Competition

These past few weeks, I've been training to row in the "Hudson River Challenge," a 25 kilometer race (about 15 miles) from the George Washington Bridge to the Tappan Zee Bridge. This regatta commemorates the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's first voyage up this magnificent river.

One of the issues in playing sports is the role of competition. Does competing to win enhance or diminish the activity’s spiritual benefits? This is a difficult question because competition often brings out the best performance in us. When we’re competing against others, we are trying harder and giving more effort. Also, training for a competition motivates us to work hard.

For all the benefits of competition, there is a downside. When we’re competing, the focus is on beating other competitors and winning the contest. This necessarily sets up a “win/lose” situation. When we’re too focused on winning, the spiritual benefits of playing are diminished. Play becomes work. Competition can also undermine being mindful while playing a sport as the focus is outward rather than inward.

That being said, there are rare souls who can ignore other competitors and play their own game or run their race. When athletes are “in the zone," they are competing. Yet, it doesn’t seem that they are concerned with competitors; rather, they are totally focused on their own performances. Some have called this “playing the inner game.”

I’m not arguing that we should forego competitive sports if we want to feed our souls. Being aware of the risks, as well as the benefits, of playing competitively can help us mitigate those risks. Also, not every sporting event has to be soul nourishing. We might decide to have different goals when we’re competing than when we’re not. Bringing an inner focus to competitive playing makes a spiritual connection possible, but there is no guarantee.

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