Several years ago I spent the better part of the spring months training for a 5K race that I’d run with a few colleagues at a former job. Just a few miles down the road from my home, I had the benefit of running every day on terrain similar to that I’d face during the race through a hilly suburban office park.
When the gun went off on race day, one of my colleagues and I immediately set the pace. For the first two miles, we maintained a slim though comfortable lead, but two other runners closed in heading into the third mile.
At three full miles, and the finish line nowhere in sight, we realized, in exhaustion, that a course marshal had given us wrong directions and the race would actually take us on a 3.9-mile (instead of 3.1) route, an error that, given this length of race, was a significant setback based on our pacing.
Thankfully, the last hundred meters would be all downhill. But, before that, a hundred (or so) meter incline up a fairly steep hill would test us at a distance we should have never met. Early on the climb up that last hill, the two runners who had previously caught up passed me.
I was mad and exhausted. For more than one mile we couldn’t shake them and now, with barely a minute to go, they had stolen a lead I’d enjoyed for more than three and a half miles. I distinctly remember thinking, “damn, I could’ve had it.”
Luckily, my exhaustion didn’t rob me of the wherewithal to immediately shift my mindset. “I’ve done hills. I sprint at the end of every run. I’m better. They can’t finish like I can.” And, in that moment, beating them became my driving force. That lead was mine, not theirs.
Nearing the top of the hill, I pushed with everything I had. And, with their strength waning up the climb, I saw my shot and took it. I passed them before the apex, and full-out sprinted on the decline to the finish.
As I entered the chute and ripped feebly at my tearaway bib ID, I turned around to meet the extended arm of the second-place finisher who’d almost won my spot. Seconds earlier my only motivation in the world was to beat him. Now, gasping for air, we shared a genuine moment of mutual respect and support for a race that became longer and more difficult than we had imagined.
Today, as a team chaplain for Neumann University Cross Country and Track & Field, this is a perspective I try to share regularly with student-athletes. Especially in these sports, our competitors – including our teammates and opponents alike – are enduring the same physically and mentally taxing pains of racing. The burning lungs, increasingly heavy legs, the stinging air – these are shared experiences, ones that, I think, promote a special bond among racers and lead to those handshakes and hugs at the finish line.
No matter the sport, mutual respect for competitors is a powerful concept and one I’ve had the privilege to explore and share with others at the Institute. Around this time last year, for instance, I co-presented the Institute’s five core pillars to a visiting group of high school students in a sport management class. The Golden State Warriors had just defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals and, good series though it was, what I most remembered was the handshake between Stephen Curry and LeBron James in the final seconds of game six.
“What did that handshake mean?” I asked. “Does the gesture at all speak to the Institute’s pillar of Respect?”
In fact, our own abilities and successes are greatly limited without the competition of our rivals. Even more base, we don’t have the chance to compete, grow, and win if an opponent does not show up. In that way, while coaches, mentors and teammates help athletes hone their crafts, rivals play a huge role in driving athletes towards personal growth and success. In the final moments of my race, it was, indeed, my competitors who helped me summon the strength to finish to the best of my ability.
For this, opponents and rivals in sports are to be respected. In fact, it’s a mindset backed by science. I reached out to our friend, sport psychologist Dr. Megan Cannon from Mind of the Athlete, who adds a healthy perspective to the hundreds of athletes she meets and to this conversation on respect in sports.
“Treat your opponent with respect…without your opponent, you wouldn’t even have the opportunity to be there,” Dr. Cannon agrees. ” You can spend energy fostering resentment towards your opponent, or you can spend that energy on yourself.”
Mind of the Athlete promotes excitement as the optimal mode of performance, and Dr. Cannon explains that an effective strategy for fostering excitement is to think about everything to be thankful for. That includes personal life circumstances, friends and family, coaches, natural abilities and passions and, yes, even opponents who make us better through the opportunity to compete. From that excitement comes positive energy that fuels effective athletic performance.
“You’re still having that relationship with your opponent, but you’re viewing them in a different way. You’re respecting yourself, your opponent, and challenging yourself to put everything out there,” she explains.
In so doing, I think, athletes hold one another accountable. Not only does the challenge make them better, it also encourages them to appreciate each other’s work. My mind is drawn back to our Institute exhibit’s Respect pillar, which features a remarkable story from 2008 in which Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon University hit a home run but couldn’t make it past first base due to a knee injury. Both to ensure that her softball team would tally its earned run but also out of respect for Sara’s accomplishment, opponents from Central Washington University picked Sara up and literally carried her around the bases.
More recently, in a similar display, a cross country runner from Minnesota carried a fallen opponent who was struggling to the finish line after sustaining a mid-race tendon injury. A high school boys’ basketball team raised money for an opponent who competed well against them but played so hard that he wound up in the hospital due to an ongoing illness (see story #5, here). And, per the sportsmanship we thankfully often witness in Little League baseball, a player who slid hard into second base, taking out a much smaller second baseman, showed genuine concern and compassion for his opponent’s well-being (see story #3, in the previous link.)
Contrast this latter story with the recent brawl between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers, a fight which led to both injuries and suspensions. Tempers certainly flare in competition, but based on the many brawls throughout professional sports, one might assume a lack of respect for competition. While we cannot see into the hearts of players, their actions – both positive and negative – set a powerful example.
As Dr. Cannon suggests, I think respect for opponents is a mindset more than an “in the moment” response. Rather, the mindset is manifested in the response, evidenced by the Central Washington University softball players who, I suspect, would treat friends and strangers in a similar way both in and out of competition. With a healthy perspective, there’s no reason not to. A score for any individual game is nice; the growth in character and even skill from a sturdy respect of competition has a far greater impact.