“I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me.” –Beck, in “Loser”
A Loser In Disc Golf, Not In Life
I was a loser last night.
I “choked” at the tail end of a disc golf game. Gave up a two-stroke lead on the last, 18th hole by tossing my disc out of bounds. Twice in a row.
After the second bad throw, I just fell over backwards. It was laughable how absurd it was. I also felt like crying.
I’ve spent years trying to put winning and losing in perspective. But boy did the loss hurt.
The choking felt physical besides metaphorical. Shame rose up in me, and my throat tightened. I had to force out words of congratulations to one of my best friends who won the round of golf.
Mostly I wanted to disappear.
As that 18th hole unfolded, it reminded me of other meltdowns during my decades-long athletic life. Basketball games in my 30s and 40s. Intramural hockey and Ultimate (frisbee) matches in college. Pee wee hockey in 8th grade. Painful moments of failing to perform in high stakes contests–to prove myself a “winner.”
Chumps And Champions
Perhaps the experience last night was heightened by the fact that it was “Super Bowl Sunday.” The day our culture most lionizes victors and pities or picks apart the not-good-enough.
Growing up, the Super Bowl and other sports titles reinforced the fixedness of those categories: champs and chumps. “No time for losers, because we are the Champions,” Queen sang in the ’70s. And we boys believed them–at least I did.
Things are a bit better today when it comes to the permanence of labels like winner and loser. The notion of a growth mindset has taken hold among younger people especially, and athletes like Steph Curry talk about process and journey as much as the end goal of a championship.
Still, so much of our society and cultural life revolves around contests where some win and most lose. Competition is like the water we swim in–so pervasive it’s hard to see it. But we are ranked and rivalrous from the moment we enter school as children. Competition dominates common kid activities (i.e. sports leagues and video games) and it governs the rat race we enter as adults.
Decreased Emphasis On Competition
This morning, I shared some of my distress over the hell that was the 18th hole with some male pals. And I found some of them have found ways beyond sports to be physical, to be athletic, to play. One cross-country skis. Another white-water rafts. A third hikes.
The conversation reminded me that the activities I’ve come to love most in my 50s leave competition behind: swimming and yoga. My favorite yoga teachersend class with words that always lift my spirit. They speak about connection and unity, not division or besting anyone. “Together may we be free,” says Jason Bowman.
There’s a similar sentiment in the “teal” consciousness that has inspired me over the last several years. Reading author Frederic Laloux and other scholars exploring stages of human thinking, I learned how our society’s obsession with winning over the past several thousand years has much to do with a fundamental sense of scarcity. A fear of want scares our egos into trying to accumulate both goods and glory–to show ourselves we have more than others.
Losing Even If You Win
But spending so much of our lives trying to outperform others leaves us empty–we lose even if we’ve won. A teal mindset, Laloux wrote, involves “a deep yearning for wholeness–bringing together the ego and the deeper parts of the self; integrating mind, body, and soul; cultivating both the feminine and masculine parts within; being whole in relation to others; and repairing our broken relationship with life and nature.”
These words spurred me on my path in recent years to explore a different, liberating masculinity.
But even those of us trying to break out of a confined version of manhood can find ourselves slipping back into old thinking. Getting caught up in a fetishization of first place. Becoming compulsive about competing.
At least I have. After all, it’s intoxicating to taste power and triumph. For much of the past several months, I was winning my disc golf games. And I was starting to believe I was unbeatable.
I wanted to play all the time.
But in recent weeks, my strongest opponent has upped his game. And my confidence has cratered. I’ve lost five straight matches–capped by last night’s collapse on the final hole.
I haven’t been a sore loser. But the losing has hurt.
My soul feels sore.
It all makes me question whether there is such a thing as “healthy competition.”
I suspect there is. There’s something about spending time with friends, playing a game you all love. Something about improving skills over time. About the thrill of a beautiful play. About performing one when the stakes are high — like the long throw I made last night on the 17 hole for a birdie and two-stroke lead.
But many of those highs can come in non-competitive settings as well. And given the high costs of competition to us as individuals and a society — extending all the way to armed conflict and the climate chaos wreaked by global capitalism — shouldn’t we look more critically at the games we play?
Can we recognize how hyper-competitive we are as individuals and as a society? Can we dial back the amount of zero-sum contests in our culture? Can we elevate ways to commune rather than compete? Can we stop beating others to feel better about ourselves?
Can we stop beating ourselves up?