Competition to Promote Excellence
A few nights ago, a familiar scene: after the Boston Celtics swept the Brooklyn Nets in the NBA playoffs, all of the players were chatting, smiling, and hugging it out in the immediate aftermath of the game.
It is a starkly different atmosphere from a few decades ago, when, if there was any contact between opposing teams after a playoff series ended, it was likely to be shouting obscenities or throwing punches.
A common gut reaction to this shift is that the players just don’t care as much as they used to. They’ve lost the competitive fire. They ought to be devastated about defeat and at each other’s necks.
First, if you actually watch the game, I don’t think anyone can say, at least not in good faith, that the athletes have lost the competitive fire. These guys play hard. Perhaps not in the regular season—where over 82 games, occasionally phoning it in may actually be a long-term winning strategy. But in the playoffs, the high level of effort is incontestable. The players are diving for loose balls. Boxing out under the hoop. And committing hard fouls in the paint. During the game they are at each other’s necks.
Second, what good does wanting to crush each other following the game actually do? The game is over. Why keep the accentuated stress response going? The science is pretty clear: the best way to turn off the stress response and increase recovery is not to rage but rather to engage in “social recovery,” or hanging out with friends. Keeping the stress response active after the buzzer rings is actually detrimental to future performance.
Third, we know that emotional flexibility, the capacity to produce context-dependent responses to life events, is key to mental health. In a nutshell, emotional flexibility is about holding everything at once—happiness, joy, and enthusiasm at the same time as anger, sadness, and frustration—and being able to feel differently at various points throughout the same day and perhaps even the same hour. With nine minutes left in the game I want nothing more than to beat you. But after the game, you are my colleague and friend. Isn’t this precisely the message we all want to transmit to our kids?
Fourth, sport is a form of play, and a big part of its role in society is to create structure and boundaries around competition. Sport is a container for our innate drives to dominate. Forgetting this leads to unstructured and unbounded aggression, which is not good. This is precisely why perhaps the best argument in favor of football is that it takes kids that would otherwise end up in jail and channels their drive productively. But in order for this to work, when the game is over, the game is over. It’s the athletes that struggle to turn it off after the buzzer rings that end up getting in trouble off the field or court, too.
Put all of this together and I think the current NBA post-game scene is a great and important example for all of us. Sometimes we let the various finite games we play encroach upon the ultimate, infinite games. If we are all doing the equivalent of wanting to kill each other after the playoff series is over, how on earth are we going to come together to solve big problems like climate change?
On a slightly lesser scale, the NBA is a great model for organizations, too. You can have different departments that want to outdo each other and push each other with ideas and innovation. But once the meeting or hackathon or whatever else is over, then everyone is on the same team, part of the same organization. After all, the etymology of the word compete is com (which means together) and pete (which means rise up and strive). Competing is raising each other up and striving together.
[…] “Competition to promote excellence” by Brad Stulberg (The Growth Equation, 2022-04). […]