Monday, May 14, 2007

Zero Sum

Competitive sports were never quite my thing. For starters I was a little bit of a late bloomer physically so I was never the fastest, tallest or biggest in my age group. In fact I was usually on the small side. Did I mention that I also wore glasses since about 4th grade? These things all conspired against me to solidify my ranking as last kind to get picked for dodgeball, softball, kickball and every other game with the suffix ball.
As I look back on my life I can see that what I didn’t like about competitive sports was the fact that somebody always had to be on the loosing side. Every point for one team is a point against the other. Even on the rare times when the team that I was on would win I felt like our joy in winning was only at the cost of the pain of the others loosing. I went looking for something else, something that did not require what I saw as a false dichotomy.
I always enjoyed riding my bike. In high school I rode my bike a lot with my friends. I enjoyed the fact that we could spend all day riding around the area and get great exercise and neither of us had to loose. In fact we seemed to ride faster, longer and have more fun doing it when we rode together. While in Japan this came in really handy. Even though my primary reason for riding my bike everywhere was transportation and not exercise I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
After returning from Japan I took up rock climbing. Climbing provided me with the sport that I had been missing and took what I enjoyed in cycling and took it up another notch. Even more than cycling climbing is a sport where nobody has to loose. There are no teams and no competitions. You just go out with some friends and the group tries to do their personal best. There is no trash talking or put downs. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Climbers encourage and even share strategies on how to climb better and better. I’ve witnessed one climber climb a route that had never been climbed before and was also a personal best for himself only to coach a perfect stranger who had just walked by through the part he had found the toughest. I will concede that this type of camaraderie may exist at some level in other sports. I was just never quite good enough to let into that privileged circle. For the most part I did not feel that climbing even had this inner circle. I’ve have seen sponsored professionals enjoy helping and watching rank novices out for their first day on the rocks.
On a personal level I also found that I enjoy the success of others even more than my personal successes on the rocks. When I go out with a friend of equal or superior skill I really enjoy what we can accomplish. However, I find that when I take friends, family members, clients or scout troops out climbing I have a much better time. Last April I guided about 30 young men and young women from my Ward for a beginner trip at Mount Yonah. Besides a few short boulder problems and one short rappel to show them how to do it, I didn’t get to climb at all. I spent the entire day belaying, teaching, putting on harnesses and setting up top rope anchors. I had a blast.
The concept of a zero sum game seems to me to be fatally flawed. The pleasure of what you are gaining only comes at the risk of loosing. I recognize that some folks may have been able to escape this type of thinking in sports with a scoreboard. I applaud their accomplishments. For me at least, I will continue to focus on what I believe to be cooperative sports rather than confrontational sports.
I've included the above photo because I believe it illustrates exactly my point. I have another photo from this series taken a few seconds afterwards when my partner's hands were not on my back. First of all, the other photo makes me feel intellectually dishonest. I didn't actually climb this little rock without help as that photo seems to display. Secondly, this photo is a much better example of how climbers, assist and support each other.


  1. That is still one of my favorite boulder probems. That was a great summer of discovery.

    And yes, I too can relate to the last kid picked syndrome. I found solace in running, cycling and climbing. I just smile and have to say no thanks when ever I get invited to play ball with the ward.

    I'm still not that coordinated and I can definitely do without reliving the adolescent angst of team sports.

  2. In all the years I played soccer, I can say that I never had more fun than when my team was losing big. Once the idea of winning is erased, the game truly become all about having fun. Like you I could never rejoice in any victory, because that meant the other team walked away losers.

  3. Just so the other four readers of this blog will know. It's Ray's hands on my back in the photo.