It is with much trepidation that I begin this article for I am afraid the truth it contains may be hard to swallow.
Competitiveness is a fundamental aspect of our human nature. Our early ancestors lived in a world much different from the one we live in today. Their survival and our existence today is the result of their constant struggle on so many different levels; to dominate nature, to fight against rival enemy factions and tribes, and to compete with rival suitors in order to pr create. We are descended from a successive line of champions. We are hard-wired from birth to instinctively compete.
Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, with whom we share a surprising 98.8% of our DNA. The notion that chimps are funny and eat bananas is false. They are savages just like us.
They often hunt other monkeys, tearing them apart and eating them alive. When we first started to scientifically study the behaviour of chimpanzees in the wild, Jane Goodall used food stations to keep the great apes around so that she could study them.
One of the first things she noticed was greed and that the chimps would deceive each other whenever possible to get the free food. The food stations even caused wars, as rival groups killed each other over the territory in which they were contained. This was a shock to those who expected to find the chimps living in peace and harmony. The great apes were discovered to be constantly politicking and making/breaking alliances when it suited them. It turned out that the more alliances a male had, the greater his chance of becoming dominant. Remind you of anything today? We really haven’t changed that much, except for being able to use even greater deception and cunning now with the advent of language.
It was probably in our earliest permanent settlements like Gobekli Tepe 1,200 years ago in Turkey that our local populations finally got into the thousands, up from small hunter-gatherer bands of families under 100 people. For the first time with this many people living so close together, I imagine that this was when things really started getting out of hand.
Instead of being part of a communal egalitarian hunter gatherer society, we were now in a fiercely competitive heirarchical agrarian society in which there was constant competition to catch up to those above us and to keep others down below.
This system overtly encouraged cheating, lying, jealousy, deception, and passive aggressive behaviour etc. These characteristics were obviously fully fledged by the time the Bible came around. With greater population in an area came a greater competition for the now limited resources, causing a zero-sum game in which one person’s gain now meant another’s loss.
Just like Jane Goodall’s chimps, because of our instinctual competitiveness, as the stakes got higher we began to increasingly utilise guile.
Immediately such works as the Trojan Horse, Sun Tsu’s “The art of War”, Machiavelli’s “The Pince”, and Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Pow\]321` er” come to mind. To be cunning and skilled at deception are traits that have long been admired because in this zero-sum game they have allowed us to attain a competitive advantage on every level, from the playground to the sporting arena, and with generals fighting battles to shepherds fighting wolves.
In sport, you learn valuable life lessons fast. It literally is a case of learn the rules and play the game. This zero-sum game is the game. A winner means a loser. It is in the arena of sport that we see the use of cunning and deception in the form of strategy and tact played out in a set duration of time for all to see.
The thrill of being tricked and surprised by the cleverness of a competitor without actually being on the losing end of the zero sum game is what I believe often draws us to the drama of sport and to love a clever champion. However spectators who only watch may never know of the subtle physiological games that play out in front of them.
In sport, just like in life, the more emotional we become the more irrational we get. Very often one competitor will try to out-psyche the other competitor by doing something to upset him.
Sometimes this is achieved through frustration, mockery, or just with good old plain verbal trash talk.
As the stakes get higher, very often so do the efforts to unsettle opponents. It takes an experienced competitor to be able to be on the receiving end of these and to retain composure in order to see the mental game behind the game for what it is, without letting it interfere with the task at hand.
These subtle mental games have been played behind the scenes in many famous sporting moments such as when Muhammad Ali used the rope-a-dope tactic to defeat George Foreman in 1974 and when in the 2006 World Cup final, Marco Materrazi’s trash talking enraged Zinedine Zidane to the point where he snapped and furiously head-butted Materrazi, getting kicked off the field in the process, thereby giving Italy the advantage.
Evander Holyfield defeated Mike Tyson in their first bout for the heavyweight title in 1996 in part due to trash talk he used to unsettle Iron Mike to the point that Tyson’s skill level diminished and he became wild. Holyfield obviously was confident in his game plan the second time around in 1997, only this time his trash talking worked Tyson up into an enraged primal frenzy that resulted in Holyfield’s ear being bitten off and leaving Tyson shouting incoherently at the media after. As a side note let me make it clear that I am in no way advocating talking trash to Iron Mike Tyson.
Having been in competitive sport for 23 years, I can honestly say that there aren’t many mental games that I haven’t seen or played.
I have been on the receiving end of opponents spitting water at my feet repeatedly, spitting in my lane, standing behind my block, shouting, glaring at me, all kinds of trash talk and even a bunch of things that I just simply thought were downright weird or gross. The contrastingly calm moments before and between the action are just as much a part of the sport as the time on the clock, the body language and affectations of experienced players are all a deliberate, premeditated part of winning strategy.
However, the camaraderie and mutual respect between athletes at the elite level of sport can foster honourable, just and noble behaviour.
In the semi final of the 2009 FINA World Championships, my suit ripped open in the ready room leaving me naked. Due to the event being run on a television time schedule, the officials intended to send out the entire field regardless of my dire, embarrassing situation. The entire field of competitors, some of whom were my friends and training partners refused to proceed without me, thus allowing me time to change into a new suit.
I will never forget their respect, empathy and kindness. From my experience, the long minutes in the nervous and tense ready rooms of the Olympic and World Championship swimming finals that are constituted of competitors who mutually respect each other, are surprisingly devoid of the subtle, petty mental games that one would expect to be such an integral part of this ultimate competition. I believe this is due in a large part to the fact that in those intense, career defining moments each competitor is totally engrossed in focusing solely on being the best that they can be and not concerned with anyone else.
To be your best in the upcoming race requires the focus of all your energy on freeing the mind for the task at hand, with no energy spared for distraction in the hope of attaining that famous flow state, much in the same way elite martial artists describe the combat mindset of “mushin”; a mental state that is free from anger, fear or ego.
Our instinctive competitive nature has been passed down to us from our primal ancestors. If this primal chimpanzee side of us is part of what it means to be human, then so too are the more humane qualities of empathy, mutual respect, and kindness that differentiate us from the great apes.
If in arguably the greatest of zero-sum games, the Olympic Games, we can conquer our primal nature, act humanely, morally, with empathy and mutual respect, then why can’t we all do this every day in ordinary life?
To be human is to have the awareness and the ability to choose between being animal or human.