The Thrill of Defeat


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My face and hands are newly tanned, my eyes are bloodshot, my ribs ache, as I make the twelve-hour drive back home from the concrete rapids of the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Over the past three days my son Devin and I raced in the Olympic Team Trials. We placed a distant fourth in the doubles event.

We raced for ‘fun,’ having started our own casual training two months ago, rather than the recommended three (or often seven) years before. And we did have fun–among other things. We also got to watch the true contenders from a racer’s privileged point of view. We warmed up with them, we sat in the competitors’ tent and ate lunch with those who chose to eat, we stood by when the official scores were posted and heard them swear as they contemplated their all-important percentage off the winner.

And now, as I cruise along the highway, rolling Charlotte’s early summer back to New England’s early spring, I contemplate the experiences of our three-day weekend, and try to integrate them with the experiences of my former self, the guy who raced in this minor, unremunerative sport for twenty-odd years. And for perhaps the thousandth time, I ask myself: Why the hell race?

It’s a demanding ‘hobby,’ and often harsh. This weekend I saw one highly trained athlete’s team come to an abrupt end when he daringly turned early for one of the slalom gates, ducked his head back for the necessary negotiation (head must go between the slalom poles)–and missed. My heart went out to him. The goal of years of intense training, denied in that instant. For a moment he froze, stunned, disbelieving. Then, brave man, he collected himself, and went on to finish the race in good style. Because that’s what you do. But I could never ask someone to put himself through that. That’s one of the reasons–and I’m going to be generous to myself here, and ignore the laziness factor–that I’ve never thrown myself into coaching.

For every winner on the platform there are many others stifling their tears. Sometimes I think Alfie Kohn has it right. Kohn is the author of, among other books, No Contest: The Case Against Competition; and Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. He sees competition as an invariably negative stimulus, enhancing neither performance nor self-esteem. And Kohn cites a host of studies to back him up. (Though I must admit, if you read too much Alfie Kohn, you start to believe the farmer is being punished when his crops come up.)
You’d think I’d have made up my mind about competition, wouldn’t you? After all, I raced with a reasonable degree of seriousness for over twenty years–somewhat on-and-off, it’s true, but the final seven with a good deal of intensity. Yet I still find it hard to put it all together.

It’s not hard to come up with motives to race; it’s just hard to come up with sane ones. Many of the reasons we do it are truly neurotic: trying to prove ourselves, to make up for secret feelings of inadequacy, to silence critics, to gain the love of our parents, to attract potential mates. (Come to think of it, that last motive isn’t necessarily neurotic. Good, that’s one. Yet that one hardly seems adequate to underpin the entire enterprise–not to mention the question of those who keep racing after being happily married.) When I say ‘neurotic,’ by the way, I don’t mean to be clinical; I just mean something like, ‘inveterately stupid.’ Why stupid? Because success cannot do what we’re imagining it will do. If you feel inadequate before your gold medal, you’re going to feel inadequate after it. I’ve known World Champions and Olympic medalists who’ve come away from their racing experience positively bitter. I’ve seen a sad drunk who’d won his Olympic gold medal that very day. Those who fail in their goals can at least blame their disappointment on their failure. It may be harder to recover from the emptiness of success.

Are there any other sane reasons left standing? There is one other candidate. One that’s perhaps clearest in retrospect. I ask myself: Would I rip those disappointing races out of my life? Do I wish to forget the failures, the miscalculations, the times I’ve inexplicably ‘clutched’? No. It happened. It was real. It was an adventure. There is gusto, even glory, in failure.
Once I stop searching for some kind of hidden key, some satisfyingly complex or intellectual secret, there the answer lies, right out in the open, amid a clutter of everyday clichés. Our sanest motive is quite simply, a quest for experience.

Not any old experience, clearly, but a particular kind, a specific quality of experience. And much as athletes talk of ‘Zen mind’ or ‘the Zone’–that elusive balanced mindset in which time slows, colors brighten, the barrier between self and world dissolves, and pure thought moves across churning waters–that can’t be the experience we seek, because competition is a well-known Zone-inhibitor. Better to search for the ‘Zone’ out on the open river, as many do. (Also an ideal setting for camaraderie and friendship.) Competitive athletes seek ‘the Zone’ not as an end in itself, but as a means. Nor are we seeking pleasure. No, Kohn is right that competition inevitably brings stress and pain–and that’s exactly what we’re looking for. Pain is the spice we wish to add to our too-bland existence. We crave intensity. As Charlotte Brontë wrote: “It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.”

It is not exactly the experience of racing that we are looking for–otherwise no one would bother to obtain the best equipment, or train two or three times a day for years on end. What we seek is, more precisely: the experience of racing to win.
A little clumsy, but I think that’s it. Coubertin’s Olympic motto, “Not the winning, but the taking part,” does not I believe refer to those who make the Olympic team and then party every night the week before their event. (Yes, this happens.) To truly take part, to have the full racing experience, we must fully give ourselves to the competition, making a whole-hearted and whole-minded effort to win.

I believe this jibes with most people’s instinctive wisdom. “Just do your best,” they say; “All we ask, is that you try your hardest”; “Keep it fun.” These express the right impulse, though I confess I am never satisfied with the phrasing. I find “Do your best” too perfectionist, a sure muscle-tightener in the starting gate. And I think Yoda had it right, about that ‘trying’ stuff: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” “Fun” is better, though I find it a weak word for a highly charged experience. We seek the rarified enjoyment of difficulty and challenge.
Perhaps I am nit-picking, here–but I maintain that it’s good to define our real goal ever more exactly. Because despite saying the right kinds of things, we so frequently turn around and contradict what we’ve just said. What we seek is just complex enough that we seem to miss our own point, fail to make certain slight but crucial distinctions. Experience: the obvious, and only sensible, answer.

And yet, do we ever say, before the trials, “Have a great experience?” Do wrestling coaches say, “Enjoy!” as they send their charges out on the mat? Not that I’ve ever heard. But they should. Over and over we shortchange the effort, the participation, the process. If an American doesn’t win, TV audiences tune out. If you don’t place in the top five in the world, the USOC cuts your funding. We talk about fun, but our kids get the real message–a message that causes an Olympic silver medalist, Michelle Kwan, to publically apologize for letting her family and coaches down by not winning the gold.

Blame, and guilt, are sure signs of sports-related neurosis. This is one area in which I feel I have made some progress over the years; the fifty-five year-old is marginally more sane than the nineteen year-old. For the longest time I was too guilt-prone for any kind of team sport; even the minor team element in wrestling was almost too much for me. I faced the occasional slalom team races with mortal dread. Now I race with a partner, yet feel largely free of either guilt or blame. Building on my former partner’s easy-going example (thank you, Lecky Haller), my son Devin and I have come to a tacit no-fault agreement. We both know that once the starter releases our stern, the time for conscious decision-making is past. And how can you blame someone for his unconscious decisions? You can’t. The same is true in training, of course.

You can blame your partner for arriving late, and that’s about it. If we make mistakes on the racecourse, we both know that the fault lies in our preparation. And if we didn’t prepare well enough–well, that was our choice; we probably had other things on our minds. Reality gives us feedback, not blame.

The no-fault approach is not just appropriate for your partner; it’s the only reasonable attitude for parents, coaches, friends, and spectators, as well. I think we can improve our imitation of sanity. We can emphasize that the payoff does not come when wearing a dry uniform on the narrow victory stand, but out in the wet churn and froth of the racing experience.

Train to train. Race to race. Live to live.

Staff Post
Staff Post
Paddlers writing about all things paddling.


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