COOPERATION IN COMPETITION

I felt like taking a short break from our How To Get Recruited series to write about today's topic. I will write part three of that series, "How To Get Recruited : Be A Great Student", later this week. I have always wondered about how we can bring cooperation and competition together. Last week I had lunch with a friend of mine, Scott Ford, a tennis pro who taught me how to see the ball more effectively and be a better goalie when I was playing in the MLL. Some of the things that he explained to me helped me understand how cooperation works into athletics and I was inspired to share...these are just some thoughts and opinions I have on the matter so take them for what they are worth and see how you really feel about it yourself.

There are many brilliant people in the world today - philosophers, spiritual leaders, scientists, psychologists and so on - who believe that our next stage in evolution is to grow from being a competitive people to a cooperative people. Also, looking back in history, some of the most successful and thriving cultures have been those who cooperated with each other. Many of the "empires" which have been the most competitive cultures, have collapsed. Personally, I believe that our western culture is one of the most competitive societies this world has ever seen and we are just starting to pay the price for it. Before anyone writes this off as hippy dippy drivel, let's stick with sports and lacrosse for now as a microcosm for society.

The existing paradigm in a lot of sports today is that athletes must beat, kill, crush, humiliate, destroy and/or dominate their opponent. With this mentality, athletes must prove that they are the better man or woman by winning and by winning as big as possible! If they win, they can feel great about themselves, but if they lose with this type of approach, they can feel as though they are a lesser human being than the winner. Watch an interview of almost any major sports star on ESPN these days and you will get what I am saying. The winner will sit there proud and act like he is God's gift to the earth and the loser will look like he is being shunned by the world. Lebron James is a great example - after a win, he acts like the second coming of Christ and after a loss he looks like a little kid who just had his lunch taken.

It's absolutely ridiculous, but a majority of athletes and coaches act this way and I have been no exception as both a player and coach. Due to our competitive nature, which we "value" so highly, we feel as though we are better people when we win and feel like failures as human beings when we lose. We make the unnecessary and destructive connection that our performance as athletes is somehow related to our overall worth as human beings. When I was growing up as an athlete, I felt like if I could be a great lacrosse player, then I would be a great person and people would like me and love me. Now, I realize that being great at anything that I do or perform has nothing to do with being a great person. We may be really, really good at doing something, but that has no connection to our basic human goodness.

So, if our own feelings about ourselves as human beings are tied to winning, then we are going to win at all costs and the opponent is the thing standing in the way.This is why athletes talk trash and openly admit to wanting to "kill" their opponent. The only time we ever want to destroy something is if we absolutely fear it. Our opponent terrifies us because of how bad he can make us feel about ourselves if we lose to him. So, our competitive nature, which we value so highly in our culture, is actually a fear based mentality.

Now, the new paradigm of athletics is based on cooperation and respect.I believe that two athletes who do this as well as anyone are the tennis players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. If you listen to them in interviews, they have the utmost respect for one another. It's not the pseudo "respect" that you hear when coaches say something like, "we have to respect these guys," either. I can assure you that many of those same coaches and athletes that pay lip-service to the word "respect" will then say in the next interview or behind closed doors, "we have to kill these guys!"or "we hate this team!".

But, when you watch Federer and Nadal, they truly respect one another because they realize that the other is one of the few people in the world who can push them to their full potential. When they face one another, they seem to be extremely present and only focused on playing the best tennis that they can possibly play. When they do so, many of their matches are absolutely stunning to behold. They bring the game to a higher level than has ever been seen, and this is precisely where the cooperation comes in. There is no greater feeling and joy in athletics when you are playing at your absolute best against an amazing opponent playing at it's absolute best!

I used to think that cooperation only had to do with teamwork and coming together with the athletes on your own team.Greater than that though, when an athlete or team respects their opponent, they know that their opponent is pushing them to reach their highest level and in return, they will push their opponent to their highest level. Furthermore, they will bring the game and their preferred means of expressing themselves, to a higher level! Doesn't that seem like way more fun and rewarding than wanting to kill and hate your opponent? Also, it comes from a place of knowing that we are all enough as human beings that whether we win or lose in competition, nothing about that will ever change one bit.

The lessons that this can teach young athletes are endless. Everyone thinks that trash talk is a great strategy to take your opponents off their game, which is questionable at best. Regardless of whether trash talk works, why would you want to do that if you truly respect your opponent and want him to play at his highest level, so you are pushed to play at your highest level? Does this mean that opponents should give each other high fives? I don't think so as it is still important for an athlete to be completely focused and present on his own play. One way that I was described in college by a journalist was that I was stoic on the field. I do not really feel that is an apt description; it's more that I was just trying to be as focused and present as possible so I could play at my highest level.

This mindset can also teach young athletes how to face other opponents throughout life.Inevitably, all of us face challenges and hardships in life. If we can respect these life opponents, then we know that these things can also push us to reach our highest potentials off the field as well. If we are always fearing that opponent can beat, crush or destroy us, then we may learn to cringe in the face of adversity or even run from challenges that would help us to become better people.

Finally, the greatest lesson for a young athlete to learn and one which I wish I had learned when I was younger, is whether you win or lose does not define you as a person. It is only a measuring stick for your skill at a particular activity. But, how a lacrosse player plays can tell a lot about who he is as a person and how much he can grow and learn about himself in the process. If we compete in the traditional sense, then we either win or lose, we are good or bad people and are day is done. If we cooperate through competition, we respect our opponent, we push ourselves and the other person to their highest potential, we push the game to a higher level, and we learn about ourselves and others in the process.

So, what would you rather do….compete or cooperate?