I never liked competitive sports but I know lots of people (not a million miles away) who would put money on two flies climbing a wall to see which one would win. Like my neighbour, who thought it would be great amusement to organise a race between my two lads aged 5 and 6. She had an old medal she had won for something, and this was to be the prize. I knew immediately that it would end in disaster; one of them would win and the other would therefore lose. The kids were mad for it, but I had to look away as the inevitable result ended in a photo finish drama.
“I won” “No I won……”
In school I flunked sports and so the nuns thought I should be put on the debating team. They then entered us in competitions against the swottiest bunch of geniuses you can imagine. My stress levels would go through the roof before a debate and the only thing for it was to shift into another gear of “performance” just to get through it. This skill of faking confidence while quaking underneath has stood to me over the years.
Most introverts, shy kids and sensitive souls have to find some way to survive competition. Coming up against those who learned to win and lose on the field of play may knock the stuffing out of you. Some of us try to develop a silver tongue instead of a pair of strong shoulders, others will rely on steely inner strength not just reserved for sports people!
In my Pollyanna way I’d like to think that it’s not always about being better than everyone else is it? Maybe being where you belong and can be your best is more important. Being part of a like minded community, working towards a goal, building a creative project, all of these paths need teamwork and collaboration. You can learn some of that through competing but you can also learn through cooperation; volunteering in arts projects, on sea rescue crews, in marching bands.
Now I love a winner as much as the next woman. And an outsider with a story of triumph over adversity will bring a tear to my eye every time. These rare moments of intense pride and achievement; the one in a million chance to be the top of the pyramid.
Between the thrill of Thomas Barr being in an Olympic Final, Waterford playing their socks off against Kilkenny, and the Leaving Cert results, we have had a lot of heart stopping moments recently. The intensity of the big risk, stepping into the light, throwing your hat into the ring. The human experiences that most affect us are all on the edge, out there, without any safety net. A roller coaster. And I am full of admiration for the ones who really go for it 100%.
But the story of the losers, the “also rans” is every bit as heroic.
While I’m watching Waterford play (scratch that I can’t actually watch Waterford play it is far too stressful,) I will be in denial, cooking, writing, doing some other job until it’s all over. From a Wine Bar perch in the Tannery in Dungarvan, I saw poor Paul Flynn pacing the floor and giving us all an update on the replay, point by painful point. There were hearts in mouths all over the county, but there was pride in seeing the team do their utmost all the way through. But in the end there’s no doubt that losing can be it’s own kind of torture….
How many of us will achieve all A1s in the Leaving Cert? About 6 people every year. It’s worth remembering that you will never, ever in your whole life be asked again what results you got. Once it’s over, it’s over and you are beginning all over again, figuring out how to find and then prove your talent. It’s a life’s work.
According to the World Economic Forum the top skills required for our future survival as a planet are problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. Collaboration is number 5 on the list. Nowhere on the list is winning, coming first, or getting hundreds of points in your Leaving.
I like the way in Ireland we celebrate “doing your best”. We value human qualities and being a decent person. We cheer our “also rans” the so called losers who aimed for excellence, took a risk, went for broke and lived to tell the tale. It’s not all about winning, it’s also about resilience and being privileged enough to put a toe into the deep end in the first place.
And funnily enough, the so called heroic “losers” and the “also rans” that we cheer on so generously, will always be the vast, vast majority of us. Losing is a far more common experience, and one we have to continually embrace to live life to the full. Unless of course we don’t take part at all?