Sportsmanship and the competitive spirit

Posted 16 December 2004 to The Game, Tactics by Jeff Soo

by Jeff Soo

“Nice guys finish last” . . . “Show me a gracious loser and I’ll show you someone who’s had lots of practice losing” . . . “Winning isn’t the most important thing—it’s the only thing”

We’ve all heard these phrases and many more along the same lines. And there’s nothing surprising about their pervasiveness. We value competitiveness because we value achievement, and the two go hand-in-hand. The phrases quoted above are generally spoken in a joking spirit, but behind the joke is an implication: if you ain’t flauntin’ that competitive edge, you ain’t got it.

Does that mean that good sportsmanship is a sign of competitive weakness? Must the nice guys and gals among us always finish last? I think the answer to these questions is no. In fact, I will go so far as to say that while good sportsmanship is definitely compatible with competitive success, poor sportsmanship is not.

Skeptical? Here’s an example from the world of professional tennis. Near the end of a grueling men’s final at the 2001 US Open, Andy Roddick threw a tantrum in response to an umpire’s overrule. Roddick’s complaint was probably justified, but did the outburst help his game? Just the opposite. He never recovered his composure and lost the match. Roddick is still very young, he is generally a good sport and I’m sure he will develop into a great champion [which he has—this article was written in 2001. Roddick won his first major—the US Open—in 2003. In the quarterfinals of the 2005 Rome Masters, his opponent was called for a double fault on what would have been match point for Roddick, but Roddick called the ball in, an act of sportsmanship that ended up costing him the match. —Ed.], but this time a surfeit of competitive passion was his undoing.

For positive examples you can look at the top achievers in many different sports. In one leg of the 2001 Tour de France, frontrunner Lance Armstrong saw that his closest rival, Jan Ullrich, had fallen off his bike on a downhill curve. Armstrong stopped and waited until Ullrich had gotten back on his bike and caught up. Armstrong then went on to win his third straight title.

In croquet, as in any sport, everyone wants to win. In fact, playing a game as if you don’t care whether you win or lose is bad sportsmanship. But taking victory and defeat equally in stride doesn’t mean you don’t care. It means you have respect for your competitors and for the traditions of the game. Blowing up over a missed shot is not likely to help your game.

Neither is arguing with your opponent or a referee. “What if my opponent has broken a rule, or is trying to get away with something fishy? What if a referee makes a bad call? I’ve got to stand up for my rights!” Whoa now, easy there. Remember that the vast majority of players are trying very hard to play according to the rules and customs of the game. By all means do your part to ensure that the game is played according to the rules, but calmly and politely, please.

If you take a defensive or argumentative attitude it can hurt you in more ways than one. It can hurt your game, because you are succumbing to distraction. And it can hurt your reputation as well. It takes two to argue, so if your opponent is being provoking, you should politely defer while you call for a referee to resolve the issue.

Conversely, good sportsmanship pays many dividends. You will both give and receive more pleasure from the game by playing in the proper spirit. And by keeping within the sedate and orderly conventions of good sportsmanship, you can more easily keep your focus where it should be, on your own game. Your results will be better, giving you more chances to practice winning graciously!

This article was originally published in the USCA Croquet News. Copyright by the author.

Last modified on 6 May 2005