Competitive Fire

You’re granted an “adolescent magic wand” with which you can provide the young adults you know an intense competitiveness or an above average ability to cooperate with others. Which do you choose?

Trick question because they’ll benefit from an intense competitiveness in the world of work and from cooperation-based experiences, knowledge, and skills in their personal lives.

An intense competitiveness will undoubtedly come in handy with the college admissions process, tightening labor markets, and the fluid, knowledge economy that an increasing number of Chinese, east-Indian, and Brazilian young adults are confidently entering.

Rewind to last week’s Narrows League Swim Meet at Foss High School in Tacoma, WA. Two hundred adolescent female swimmers exhibiting differing degrees of competitiveness. The mother and father in front of me sit passively until their daughter enters the water and then they go beserk. Their daughter, one of the top swimmers at the meet, seemingly feeds off their energy.

I’ve got the dad all figured out. Former national water polo player, then extreme fighter, and now UFC executive. He’s stolen my hair cut, but I let it go because I’m a wee bit intimidated by the tats running down his rippled triceps.

Event two for his daughter and I’m in full on eavesdropping mode. Dad is flexing for daughter and she’s eating it up from the behind the block. He air-shouts and she lip-reads, “GO HARD!” She eats it up as if there’s an electric current connecting them. Swims a 25 second 50 free and all I can think is the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

My approach to spectating is more cerebral. I’m in Phil Jackson-mode, sitting quietly focusing more on writing down splits than firing up my daughter. Afterwards, when I get real excited, I flash her a thumbs up sign. Forget electricity, I barely muster a spark.

It must be my fault that my daughters lack competitive fire. But just about then the competitive fire water got muddier.

I’m in the top row of bleachers, leaning against the cinder block wall next to the father of our team’s swimmer of the meet. She won the 50 free, beating rippled triceps daughter in the process, despite having only the fifth fastest qualifying time and she won the 100 breast going away (1:08). Her dad, who I know, stood passively next to me while she swam. Like me, he doesn’t have a bicep to flex. Two egghead peas in a pod, we talk philosophically. Wait a minute, where does his daughter’s intensity come from?

I ask if she’s going to swim in college. “No, we’re discouraging her from doing that it’s such a time-suck.” Mental parenting report card. Two points for separating their egos, minus one for not letting her decide herself.

Maybe competitive fire is like most things in life, part nature, part nurture. Most adolescents are wired like their parent(s) and follow their lead, but not all. What works for each family is different.

Returning to the magic wand, being comfortable with competition is important, but of course there’s a point of diminishing returns. We all know people whose competitive nature gets the best of them.

Once a young person gets into college, and once they take a job, cooperation-based experiences, knowledge, and skills are more integral to their success. Not just their workplace success, but their happiness in life more generally. Which begs the question, why aren’t we more intentional about teaching young people how to cooperate with one another?

2 thoughts on “Competitive Fire

  1. Yeah!! Son said he wasn’t going to worry about grades anymore and just learn “for the fun of it” His grades have massively improved. No joke.

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