An Unhealthy Competitive Streak


“The next time we play a video game, can we do it without complaining so much and criticizing each other?” my son asked me. The question was illustrative on so many levels. I know that I’m an overly competitive person who can get a little frustrated when I don’t succeed in video games, but I didn’t think I was so competitive that it was affecting my relationship with my son. I saw friends of mine pound their face into coin-op game screens, when I was younger. I heard kids swear so loud in arcades that I was embarrassed to be around them, and I knew kids who viewed their inability to get to the next level of a computer game as some sort of personal failing. I remember these kids, because they were so hilarious. Now, my son implied that I might be one of them.

Anyone who knows a seven-year-old knows that seven-year-olds don’t imply. They discovered language fairly recently, and they don’t fully understand the full power of it. They say the meanest, most awful things, and if their words offend you, that’s on you. We might use their comments as examples of what not to do. We might take them by the hand to help them retrace their steps to show them how others might misconstrue their words as offensive, but those lessons require months and years of repetition, and in the interim, we have to deal their unvarnished truth.  

Most fathers want to spend time with their kids. Most fathers want their kids to enjoy spending time with them. My son wanted to play games with me, and he wanted to have as much fun as the father-son combo did on a YouTube video he watched. I watched this YouTube video with him, of a father and son playing a game together, and they did appear to be having one heck of a good time. My son wanted to do that with me. I, too, wanted to play a game with him just for the fun of it, but to do so, I knew I would have to reverse engineer some 35 years of conditioning.

If you’re the type who plays games, because you enjoy playing games at the end of the day, and you don’t really care if you win or lose, you can stop reading now. You can leave with the knowledge that I envy your healthy mindset, but I could probably never be friends with you.

For the rest of us, it’s always all about winning. Our grandfathers taught our fathers to teach us that there’s something special about winning, and it’s something that we all need to learn. We need to learn it, they suggest, because we need to be it. Winning is an attitude we need to learn when we’re young, and a life well lived is all about fortifying that attitude with our own special ingredients. It doesn’t matter if you’re an aspiring businessman who is willing to risk it all for a profitable business, playing a video game with your kid, or joining a group of young girls you’ve never met before in a game of hopscotch, it’s all about winning.

When I played games as a kid, video and otherwise, I don’t remember ever doing it for fun. Games weren’t fun for me then, and they aren’t now. Games are a test of my abilities and the qualities of my character. I still remember some games I won in sports, when I was young, and some of the games I lost still weigh on my soul. Some games require strategy, some require brute force, and others require some combination of the two? Video games rely on strategy, ingenuity, and all of the creative ways a player can find to defeat their opponent? These games involve one winner and one loser, and it wasn’t enough for us to finish second when I was younger. If you finished second, you lost. Before those of my generation dismiss this argument that there might be something wrong with being overly competitive, we have to consider how unhealthy this mindset can be at times.

We all love to read stories about how six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan needed to beat everyone on the team bus in checkers, cards and any game he could think up. We love to hear about how NFL Quarterback Phillip Rivers constantly challenging his teammates to a game of dominoes, and how Tom Brady needs to beat everyone he knows in any game that they want to play. It wasn’t enough for these guys to be at the top of their respective fields, they needed to win relatively meaningless games in their free time. These three decorated and accomplished athletes have a ferocious, almost to the point of the unhealthy, appetite to win all the time. Some suggest this ferocious competitive nature is what separates them from those of equal ability, but is there a another side to their stories, a dark side?

What would those people who love to hear stories about famously competitive athletes think if Phillip Rivers upended a table after losing a game of dominoes to his seven-year-old son? Phillip Rivers never did this, as he likely has a very healthy hold on his competitive instincts now, but if he did, wouldn’t we say that’s a little unhealthy? We can guess that Rivers probably never felt the need to do that, because he has an outlet for his ferocious competitive instincts. He has already accomplished great feats among the greatest athletes in the world, and such a display would speak of frustration. My guess is that earning one of the most prestigious positions in all of sports quells those frustrations and any other sense of unhappiness that would drive such a display.

Yet, how does one earn one of the most difficult and prestigious positions of  quarterback in the NFL. How does one earn such a position when they lack the athletic talent necessary to achieve it, as many have said Tom Brady does. How much drive does that require, and is there an ugly side of that drive that no one discusses in these fun-loving, “He’s so insanely competitive” stories?

Most of us would be satisfied to be the starting quarterback of one of the most prestigious college football teams in America, as Tom Brady did at Michigan, some might be satisfied just to be drafted to play quarterback in the NFL, then start. We might consider it a life well lived to earn chance to play in just one Super Bowl. For Tom Brady, that wasn’t enough. He worked through whatever demons chase a player throughout a season to appear in nine of them and win six. Does Tom Brady have a secret formula to maintaining such a consistent, championship levels of success, or does the state of being perpetually unsatisfied almost require some level of perpetual unhappiness and inner frustration? We all know the follow-up joke to this. If a coach, or a fan, learned that certain levels of unhappiness drove Brady and Jordan to win six championships, they’d ask what do I have to do to get four or five more unhappy, frustrated people on my team? It’s funny, because it’s true that professional sports teams, corporations, and anything and everything between want ferociously competitive people who crave whatever challenges put in their way to greater achievement. 

Does being unsatisfied with some success lead to more success, or is there some measure of fundamental unhappiness and frustration attached? Imagine being Tom Brady’s sibling, growing up, knowing that every time he loses he’s going to freak out and upend the table? Imagine purposefully losing to him, so he doesn’t cause a scene. Imagine what you might have to do to keep such a person happy as a spouse. Imagine being their seven-year-old child, and your dad questions your character when you’re not able to keep up with them in a game of Super Mario Brothers Deluxe. We probably assume such people don’t take it home with them, but if they’re that competitive, we have to assume that their loved ones see some of the components of the dark side that drive their ferocious, competitive instincts.

I’m sure that there are men and women from as far away as China and Liechtenstein who think it’s not worth playing the game if you don’t do everything humanly possible to win, but the idea that narrowly finishing second destroys a person emotionally appears endemic to males who are Americans.

If we enter into a friendly contest for money, and we lose that contest by cents, it upsets some of us so much that we can’t sleep at night. Most second place finishers might feel some frustration by being so close to winning, but some view this as just as devastating as a last place finish loss by hundreds of dollars. I’m competitive, and I might be so bad that it’s a little unhealthy, but that ferocious level of competition is something I can’t completely comprehend.

If I suffer from this unusual, and unhealthy, need to win, that does not extend to games of chance. I know I have no control of the dice or the next card a dealer sends me. These games involve some strategy, and an advanced poker player could clean me out in under an hour, but there’s still an overriding element of chance to these games. Gamblers talk about the thrill of victory, and I’ve experienced that, but my experience with games of chance almost always involves the agony of defeat. If I ever won, other than the few times listed below, I might develop a problem, but I’ve never had a problem with gambling.   

I may be upset when chance doesn’t roll my way, but it does not destroy me emotionally. These are games of chance, and I know if I get lucky, I don’t expect that luck to continue. In a friendly game of craps, for instance, I once committed what others considered a cardinal sin of pulling my money off the table in the middle of a hot streak. I knew my luck couldn’t continue, and I knew that with every roll, so I stopped right in the midst of it. I did so, in my opinion, before my luck could run out. I was satisfied by my meager winnings, and I knew that the chances that I would continue to win were against me. My friends complained that true craps players don’t pull their money off the table, without giving the other players a chance to win their money back. “But I was playing against the house,” I said.

“Still,” they said. “It’s considered poor gamesmanship to take the money and run. Plus, if you let it ride, you could’ve been the biggest winner of the day. You were on a roll.” 

To their utter amazement, I was just fine with my meager winnings.

I did this again, sometime later in a poker game. This time, I let my money ride and ended up finishing second. If anyone, anywhere, considers this bragging, I add that in a lifetime of playing these stupid games of chance, there’s a reason these two instances are memorable. The game ended with me drawing one relatively inferior card, and I finished one card away from winning the pot. I finished second in the winnings of that day, and I had no designs on playing a bluff and pushing my pot to the middle. I was perfectly happy to finish second that day, and that didn’t make sense to my friends.

It didn’t matter to them that I played the big money winner down to the final hand. It didn’t matter to them that I managed to walk away with the second most money. He won. I lost. Game over.  

“You need to learn how to lose if you ever hope to win,” Woody Allen’s mom once told him. I don’t care if you’re Tom Brady, Tony Gwynn, or Michael Jordan, you’re going to lose more than you win in life. Tony Gwynn didn’t get a hit 66.2% of the time, Michael Jordan missed 50.3% of the shots he took, and Tom Brady had to fight in college and in the early years of his NFL career to become, and remain, a starting quarterback for those squads. We need to learn to manage and learn from our losses if we ever hope to win. Yet, we don’t want to manage it too well, for as O.J. Simpson said, “He who loses well loses often.”  

I apparently didn’t manage losing well, as evidence by the fact that I don’t win often enough. “But did you have fun?” my mom would ask to start the healing process after I finished second. “If you did, that’s all that matters.” She enjoyed racing her peers, when she was young. She didn’t care if she won. She just enjoyed spending time with friends. She had the healthy mindset of course, but it didn’t ease my sense of devastation. Having fun was for girls as far as I was concerned. I enjoyed winning, and I wanted to beat my opponent so bad that I demoralized them.

There was one kid I could never beat in one particular game. There was nothing I could do different to beat this kid. He was just better than me at this game. He didn’t rub it in, and he didn’t celebrate his victories in any way. He was just better than me, and he knew it. When I finally overcame him, I continued to play hard, and ran up the score. “How’s this any fun for you?” he asked. “Do you enjoy humiliating me?”

“I do,” I said. “I consider it fun.”

Seven-year-olds know nothing of these complexities. They want to win when they play sports, and they want to beat video games, and they feel some frustration when they don’t. They might even see upending tables as a way of coping with loss, until they see an example of the opposite. They might also find playing video games with Dad to be less than fun, because he always gets so upset, and he’s always criticizing me and complaining about his own inability to defeat the game. Seven-year-olds don’t view the video game as a vicarious way of accomplishing what they can’t do in real life. They might view getting past stage eleven of the game as a moment of pride, but they don’t have the baggage on their back that the rest of us do. They don’t lord it over their friends who haven’t done it. They just think that video games are fun, and they look like more fun when others play it than when we do.

After my son issued his character-defining challenge, I accepted it and attempted to erase my lifelong conditioning, and I did it. When we played the game together, and he fell behind, I patiently waited for him to catch up. When he killed us, I said, “Hey, it’s just a game.” He freaked out however. When I fell behind, or caused us to die, he was rude, insensitive, and ferociously competitive. “What happened?” I asked. “I thought we were supposed to be playing this game without criticizing each other or complaining?” He had no answer for that, which led me to believe that as hard as I focused on putting my conditioned responses in the off position for one game, he couldn’t do the same with the conditioned responses I taught him.