If you knew me from school (all those years ago) and hadn’t seen me since, you’d be quite surprised how I turned out. It’s an obvious fact that people change drastically when they leave school and grow up, so this is nothing new. But I was just thinking back to how I used to react to situations and what my motivations and attitudes to my environment were – and it is like watching a different person.
I’m a fairly competitive guy. And I always have been. But these days if I’m having a game of tennis and I lose badly, then I just laugh. I enjoy playing and I do try my best, but sometimes the other guy is just better than me or I make loads of rookie mistakes and throw the match away. But I just love to play. Contrast that with when I used to play squash. When I was a teenager I was pretty handy at the game and took great pleasure in giving my father a run for his money on the court. But I had a large Achilles heel. I was the world’s worst loser.
It wasn’t that I used to swear if I lost points. It wasn’t that I used to get angry with myself. It was just that I used to totally lose control. I smashed several rackets against the walls (breaking many in the process). I shouted and swore at the top of my voice and my blood pressure must have been high enough to boil an egg on my forehead. When I broke my last racket I quit. I had come to realise that this childish, John McEnroe behaviour was pathetic and I needed to get a life. So I put down my racket and swore I’d never play again as long as I lived. And I never did, until I started playing again a couple of years ago.
In the time between I played a lot of tennis and returning to a squash court showed me that I had in fact forgotten how to play. I was serious about quitting for life so I had subconsciously purged all my tactical knowledge from my memory. Anyway, I played a colleague at work and lost. In fact I played him several times and although it was always close, he always managed to edge the result. And you know what? I didn’t lose my temper once. I didn’t smash my racket or even get tense. I just enjoyed playing. I tried my best but the outcome no longer mattered to me. I had expected to roll back the years and be a tantruming teenager again but it just didn’t happen.
It took about 20 years, but I had managed to work out the most important lesson in my life: you are only in competition with yourself. As long as you always give your best, then you can’t complain – even if you lose.
I’ll never forget watching Roger Black winning the silver medal in the 400m in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. It’s my favourite sporting moment by the way and still gives me the shivers when I think about it. He was beaten by the superhuman Michael Johnson on that day but Roger seemed quite happy. Years later I saw him interviewed about the day and he said that even though he was standing on the second step to get his medal that he felt like he had won the race. His reasoning was that he had given his absolute best effort and couldn’t have gone any faster or tried any harder. So he had won his race.
And that’s what I do now. When I play tennis, squash, football or work I’m not interested in trying to beat anybody else. I’m focused only on doing my best. And that’s what separates me from the kid I was at school. The only thing that mattered to me was trying to impress other people. But now I’m really not interested. I do things because I enjoy doing them. Not because I think people will think I’m cool for doing them or that I have to be one-up on somebody else by doing them.
So when I was playing pool last night and getting a pasting (as I quite often do) I didn’t complain. I just enjoyed playing and potting a few balls. And when I play table football I might petulantly throw the ball away after I lose but it’s purely for humour, there’s no malice or bad sportsmanship. So for anybody I burned along the way by being an arrogant, competitive, selfish git. I apologise. But hey, you weren’t exactly perfect either!