Why I Compete
You’re nuts. Or you need to get over yourself. Your golden age is long gone.
Those are the two less charitable ways to regard the competitive drive of a masters athlete. That would make the USATF Masters National Championships, especially the outdoor one, a remarkable collection of delusional narcissists. The indoor championships only less so because they’re smaller. And masters powerlifting divisions at USAPL Raw Nationals? Delusional aging hulksters, right?
I know a lot of these people, and I compete in both disciplines, track and field and powerlifting. And while a few of us may be slightly demented, we don’t have delusions, either of grandeur or of glory. While I can’t answer for anyone but myself, the goal of competition, in most people’s minds, the outcome you seek, is not winning. Don’t get me wrong—winning is nice. But it’s the cherry on top of an already substantial sundae.
Here is why I compete:
Mastery. When I was a younger athlete, I thrived on an abundance of natural ability. Yes, I practiced and trained, but I actually could just roll up to a meet and do really well. The thing, however, was that I didn’t know how to master the craft. As an older athlete, the joy in training is the joy of seeking mastery. Running the perfect turn in the 200 meters. Spot perfect form in a deadlift. The ideal flight of a javelin. Competition is the site where you get to measure your mastery with others, under pressure, with no excuses. As I age, I find my goal is to make greater progress toward understanding my craft, and working on my approach. I’m old enough to know that perfection is unattainable. That makes pursuing it an object of wonder.
Camaraderie. We are not wired to be lone wolves. We are creatures of social construction. We know things as a community because we have crowd-sourced the wisdom and knowledge. That is the way the human race has evolved, civically and emotionally, through the ages—as a social unit. But much of our training, as athletes, takes place alone. Even my training partners in powerlifting are not inside my head as I “get my mind right so I can get my grind right.” For me, competition is the place where, as we measure our training against the ideal, we convene to share, to laugh, to learn from each other. Yes, we want to win, but the notion of winning as “domination” that I had as a younger athlete has been replaced by the notion of winning as camaraderie. There is no more poignant moment, at the end of a decathlon or pentathlon, than the lineup before and the exhaustion after the final event, the 1500 meters. In every one I’ve completed, I can only call it the moment we recognize ourselves as a family, if only for that day.
Accountability. To the sport. To your competitors. To yourself. Competition is the place where the results are posted. Your choices, your training, your discipline and your execution are revealed, as if in a snapshot, at the one moment. Does that mean that a poor performance is a record of failure? If you fail to learn from it, yes. If the performance holds your training or your discipline or your choices accountable, and you learn how to adjust? That’s not a failure; that’s success. I’m just not good enough, or honest enough (perhaps), to read my training and let it hold me accountable. There’s always a reason if I didn’t hit a session just right. But you build to a competition, you peak for it, and you take it seriously. And the result holds you accountable. To yourself. To your competitors, to whom you owe your best that day. And to the sport.
As I think about these things, competition becomes much more than who wins. It is an organic part of practicing and mastering your craft.