Is Competition Healthy?

Lost fact: competition and health are not the same thing.

Yet, we act as if they are. As adults, we mostly believe that if we’re competing in an athletic contest, we’re also getting healthier.

It is absolutely true that competing causes most of us to work harder than we otherwise would. And to work harder at something physical, and something that moves us generally in the direction of better conditioning (a requirement of health), appears on the surface to be a good thing. Except when it isn’t.

…how many of those people who participate in the nearly constant stream of Marathons are actually committed to winning the race?

To work hard for something only requires that there be a clearly defined goal. Competitive sports have a clearly defined goal: winning… or coming as close to it as possible. There is nothing wrong with that as a pursuit or a goal, IF that is actually what a person is after. Be very clear however that most people who engage in competitive sports actually are working for something other than winning. How do I know? Answer this: how many of those people who participate in the nearly constant stream of Marathons are actually committed to winning the race? You know the answer: about 2 percent. What are the other 98% doing? They honestly and sincerely believe they are proving something about their health. But to them, health has never been defined enough to be a motivating goal, so they need something else that offers a more exacting target, and to bring some urgency to the matter. Enter, athletic competition. It looks a lot like the activity that contributes to health, and the goal is urgent (at least to your ego) and clearly defined: you are a winner or you are something measurably less. So, sport often becomes a substitute goal for the pursuit of health. It gets you to work hard at something that looks like it is heading you toward the goal you really want: namely, health.

While all of the trophies, sometimes money, and bragging rights go to the winners (or near-winners), it is the other 98% of those competitors that I care about. Not only does this effort not say much about their state of health (as it relates to quality of life and longevity), but they may also be moving their personal health meter in the wrong direction.

Besides the misperception of the value to your health, another problem with athletic competition as a substitute goal is that it will inevitably cause you to stray from the path of health for the sake of winning at the sport. The paths will depart from one another from Day 1 due to the preparation required for the sport. The essence of every sport is that it has a skill component that is unique to that sport. A skill that is unique to sport also means that it contributes little to a persons general quality of life. Mastering that skill requires a considerable time commitment that could otherwise be spent in the pursuit of actual health, or just enjoying your life in other ways. Conversely, the requirements for health involve a broad range of skills, none of which require you to be expert.

When health is a clearly defined thing, it becomes its own goal. Just you and a life lived to its full potential.

Here’s more: winning at athletic competitions obviously depends on—among other things—maximum human performance. Maximum performance, as opposed to sustainable performance, is always short-lived, and it is achieved through a series of manipulations of your body done for the sake of that performance and no other reason. From nutritional gimmicks to periodization training, there are several strategies designed to produce maximum human performance at a date/time certain. After that time and date, sustaining that level of performance is impossible. The conflict is found in this axiom: short-term maximum human performance always comes at the expense of long-term vitality and longevity; a.k.a., health.

It should be clear now that you can’t serve these two goals simultaneously and by the same means; one is going to eventually conflict with the other and you will have to choose, often without even realizing that is what you’re doing. In the heat of competition you will inevitably choose winning at the sport instead of winning at health, especially if there are others counting on you (as in team sports) or with judging eyes upon you (as in spectator sports). You will push yourself to the point of injury or any myriad actions that are distinctly destructive to health for the sake of that substitute goal, and you will be congratulated for doing it. Such is the nature of those that make winning the goal. As long as we all truly understand that, the other 98% of us can save ourselves a lot of heartache and frustration at our failure to achieve the one thing we really wanted all the time.

When health is a clearly defined thing, it becomes its own goal. It can be equally motivating to every part of you except the ego, because only you will know what you’ve created, and only you will enjoy the benefits. Sorry, no pats on the back, no high-fives, no fist-bumps, no trophies, no applause, no podiums, and definitely no bragging rights. There is no “picture of health” to place on the mantle. Just you and a life lived to its full potential.


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