We are digging in the corner.
She is big, taller than me and strong through the shoulders. A real athlete, I know from the dressing room, practitioner of every kind of winter sport I’ve heard of and a few I haven’t. In addition to hockey, her weekends consist of curling and snowboarding and skiing of both varieties, and I’m pretty sure she mentioned a triathlon not too long back. She asks speculative questions about speed skating.
This lady exercises every day of the week and twice on Sundays, and her body shows it. Me, I walk and sometimes carry grocery bags, and my body shows that. I know, when I get my skate on the puck a bare quarter second before she comes in behind me, that we are not evenly matched. I go for it anyway.
I have position but she has size. I get low, my only real option, pulling my body down to solidify my stance and hopefully catch her off balance. My odds aren’t great in any situation, but I figure I’m better off shoving against her ribs than up around her shoulders and jutting elbows.
It doesn’t make any difference. I hold her off for maybe, generously two seconds before she upends me, and then the puck is gone and her as well, the play developing high in the zone and me on my ass just east of the net.
I got beat. Again.
I fucking hate getting beat.
The unpleasant fact is that I’m a competitive person. It’s a little bit embarrassing to admit that, like confessing to the world that you have a shopping addiction, or don’t know how to ride a bicycle, or actually really liked that stupid late-90s song about butterflies or whatever. Outside of high-level athletics, “competitive” is mostly a character flaw. It signifies taking things too seriously, trying a bit harder than is seemly, possibly reacting badly to a loss. The competitive person is the one you don’t want to play games against.
Certainly my femhockey class is not competitive. There might be some women in it, like me, who have these impulses, but we’re all keeping them very quiet, out of a shared sense that it just wouldn’t be appropriate. No, this is the kind of place where the defending team cheers for the opponent who scored against them and no one keeps score. Nominally, we are all winners. Because we’re all learning! And we’re having fun! And isn’t that the point? Yep. No need for competition.
In truth, nearly everything has been like this my whole long life. I know somewhere up above me, in the higher echelons of professional and quasi-professional sports, there is a land where competitiveness is a virtue, but I’ve never been there. I grew up in the era of everyone-gets-a-medal-for-participation, shepherded through school sports days by tender teachers who assured us that there was no such thing as losing, that is was all about ‘being healthy’ or sometimes ‘being the best we can be’. Officially, no one’s best was better than anyone else’s best. Officially, we were all winners.
Of course that was a lie and everyone knew it. You knew it as soon as you left the classrooms, as soon as you tried to play anything on the open fields, with no adults around to tilt things into an illusion of balance. The gifted rise to the top, they outrun us, out-jump us, throw with a precision we could never match and catch things we never could. And, often as not, children being children, they shove us down in the dust and short mangled grass and laugh about it. The hierarchy doesn’t disappear just because the adults want it to. It just moves off school property.
I think, for a lot of us who were never athletically gifted, these childhood experiences linger longer than they should, and color forever our understanding of competition. As much as the adults, when you are small, try to maintain the lie that no one is better than anyone else, eventually they start to single out the kids who are really good and filter them up into specialized athletics, where their competitive impulses are sharpened to fine cruel points. From then on, if you’re not one of these dedicated jocks, you come to experience ‘competition’ as an endless series of abuses visited by the talented upon the untalented.
And eventually, if you are like me, you come to an adulthood among artists and musicians, hippies and vagabonds, where ‘competitive’ is a dirty word.
Not that we aren’t, though. That’s the thing- competitiveness isn’t really related to talent. Even among those of us who never had the aptitude for winning games on the court or the ice or the field, there are plenty who hate getting beat. But we suppress it, because at some point, it’s a useless emotion. Competitiveness is great when things are evenly-matched, but in life, they rarely are. Being competitive when you’re hopelessly outclassed makes you annoying. Being competitive when you’re demonstrably dominant makes you an asshole. It is a socially unproductive impulse, best stifled.
We lose something, though, when we create a life filled with noncompetitive spaces. It is easier, sure, and maybe more fun, but competition is more than just stupid gamesmanship. Competition is a teacher. It may very well be the best teacher, although we often gloss over that part. The politically correct way to speak of achievement emphasizes practice and self-improvement. We talk about the ten thousand hours of practice as though that was all that really mattered, as if one could become a great painter by just dutifully sitting down at the easel for a prescribed length of time rather than by putting one’s work out on the market to be seen, criticized, and occasionally trashed. We fetishize Sidney Crosby’s dryer, target of a million practice shots, as if the secret of his greatness was all in those hours alone in the basement rather than in the thousands of shots he humiliated goalies with in actual games. We often emphasize the triumph as if it was a thing in itself, while eliding the fact that the triumph is always against someone, over someone. The truth is that, for the most part, practice isn’t something we do in itself. We don’t practice just to put in time, because we’re naturally hard-working souls. We practice because we got beat and we hated it and we don’t want to get beat again. Competitiveness is the essence of determination, the dirty little secret of perseverence. Sometimes people become great for noble reasons, but sometimes- more often than we’d like to believe- they become great because they just hated to lose.
Every time I get beat, I learn more than I have in a dozen drills.
Hockey, for me, now, is just one long sequence of getting beat. I get beat in the corners, I get beat to loose pucks, I get beat by faster skaters and stronger forecheckers and even the occasional goalie. I get beat up and down the ice like the proverbial rented mule.
And I hate it. I hate it so hard I can barely contain the rage- not at the better person, mind you, them I respect all the more- but at the situation. At the experience. I don’t say anything, I don’t yell or whine or glare steely glares at my rivals on the bench, I don’t do more than bang my stick on the ice, which as I understand it is the approved hockey way of expressing frustration with one’s own failures.
But man,when it happens, when I lose a battle or a footrace, the competitiveness blasts through me with such blinding heat that it burns away my exhaustion and withers my anxieties and suddenly I am no longer shy or embarrassed or worried, I am no longer criticizing myself in endless recursions of guilt the way I do in practice. I am just going to get that fucking puck next time. There is no because, there is no why, there is no how, it just is. I am NOT going to get beat again.
I read two stories within two days, the one on Twitter and another in a book, about the ridiculous competitiveness of the pros. Jonathan Quick, his wife says, is so competitive that he will cheat to win games against his two-year-old daughter. Conn Smythe, also, would cheat against his youngest, sending her crying to her mother about Daddy’s dishonest ways. She died when she was ten, probably of a severe allergic reaction. The very last thing he ever did with her, mere minutes before she passed, was beat her at croquet.
Maybe you have to be that competitive to go that far. It might be that only that level of competitiveness- the kind so extreme it inspires you to cheat to ensure victory over children, the kind that any reasonable person would consider unmitigated assholery- is a powerful enough teacher to drive such extremes of achievement.
Of course, there is no reason for an ordinary person to be that irrationally competitive. I never had the slightest chance of growing up to be the starting goaltender on a Cup-contending team. I missed my opportunity to build the Toronto Maple Leafs by a good eighty years. But I haven’t missed my chance to, someday, somehow, win a battle in the corner. I can still do that. Without those surges of competitive heat, though, I doubt I ever would.