Choosing Cooperation over Competition

I played sports in school all the way through college. However, I didn’t have the best experience with it, for which I’m now grateful.

I’m grateful I didn’t continue on to have a professional athletic career and instead had to develop a more useful skill set and more diverse interests. I’m grateful I didn’t get injured worse than I did. But mostly I’m grateful I came to understand all the insidious ways team sports and, more generally, constant competition can negatively impact our individual lives and our culture.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that our country and the world have become so polarized. That we’re so ready to fight against everyone or anyone else. That it’s always us vs. the bad guys in everything we do and in every way we identify, from sports to school to work to relationships to politics to international relations. We’ve been taught to be that way from our earliest days. Kids’ sports are competitive. School is competitive. Job searches are competitive. Business is competitive. Elections are competitive. It seems everything we do is competitive, and becoming more so every year.

Further, many of our entertainments reinforce this narrative. We watch and play competitive sports. We watch and play competitive video games. Movies and TV shows often depict good guys vs. bad guys, and then the shows themselves get judged and ranked by Rotten Tomatoes and various award ceremonies. Social media is like a global competition of who can say the nastiest things to or about other human beings. This doesn’t feel good to me.

Cooperation is part of what attracts me to rock climbing. Sure, there are climbing competitions and people who take the sport to the extremes. However, for the most part, and for most climbers, rock climbing is about cooperation, community, fitness, health, and nature. As long as everyone comes home safely, everyone wins. I like dance, hiking, biking, and yoga for similar reasons. Dance even adds a creative or artistic element, and yoga adds meditation and spirituality. I’d argue that climbing and the other activities can be artistic, meditative, and spiritual as well, though that’s not necessarily a common perspective.

Similarly, I love playing board games, card games, and table top games, especially with people who don’t care who wins. However, my favorite games are cooperative games like Forbidden Island and Pandemic. In these games, the players work together to achieve some challenging objective. The players either all succeed at the mission and win together, or they all fail and lose together. Everyone cooperates with, advises, and directly supports each other. Typically each player has different abilities or assets that they combine with other players’ abilities and assets to form a cohesive strategy. If the group strategy is good enough, and if you’re not too unlucky, you win the game. There’s no competing against or beating another player. Even if you don’t succeed, no one feels bad or not enough. The real purpose of the game – having fun with your friends – is always a success.

I don’t condemn highly competitive and/or team sports, and I don’t condemn people who are attracted to them. Neither do I condemn competitive board games nor people who play them ultra-competitively. (See how this works? There’s no need to say that people who think differently from me are wrong or bad in any way.) Cooperation is simply what I choose now. And in choosing it, I find my ability to connect and empathize with others has increased dramatically. I’m grateful for that most of all.