Fanning the Flames of Competition

I love sport. I do. And now I’m at the phase of life where I’m no longer competing (much) and it’s my turn to guide the next generation of athletes. Others did that for me, so I feel indebted to do the same. It just feels like the right thing to do.

With that in mind, I enjoy doing so because there is a challenge to it. What did I learn from those before me, and how can I do it better? That competitive mindset never seems to go away. I suppose “fanning the flames of competition” fits here, but there’s another meaning which is probably less used. Or maybe I’m making this up as I go along.

We know a fan is something that can produce wind, but a fan is also short for “fanatic”: someone who is a strong supporter of someone or something. I apologize for the loose definitions, but I didn’t want to go into the cliche dictionary definitions. The first question we should ask ourselves is, “Who or what are you a fan of?” This could be anyone and anything but let’s try to set some additional guidelines, because it’s easy to like things or ideas, but another to financially support them, and another to stand up for them. Of course there could be different levels of being a fan, much like different tiers based on the level of financial support used on Patreon, Ko-fi, or other websites that support content creators, including the obvious for fans, not quite the one and only.

Here is a personal example from music. I’m a huge Eminem fan. Yes, I’m a “Stan”. I don’t care what other people say about his style of music, lyrics, whether he’s played in clubs, cars, or whatever the case. I will forever support Eminem because I respect his rags to riches story and the level of mastery he puts into his music. I also respect that other people have their own favourites, and even if they don’t like him. Choosing to be a fan is a personal choice, and if you like Drake or Taylor Swift, Black Pink or BTS, or whoever I don’t listen to, that’s totally fine! We can enjoy different things and still be friends, you know.

Financially, I will find a way to buy an Eminem album when it comes out. I think I have every album in my collection, mostly on CDs. Though I may not buy some of his other non-music merchandise (e.g. clothing, NFTs, etc.), that just determines how big of a fan I am. I would actually make the effort to see him if he went on tour, which says a lot because I probably wouldn’t go out and see anyone else.

Now here’s where we take this idea and put it into another context. Originally, this came from the Daily Stoic’s Leadership Challenge in the deep dive with Randall Stutman and Ryan Holiday (also a fan of). There was a part where Dr. Stutman speaks of “giving up power to get power” and the nuance that the only way to control someone with power is to use even more power. By giving up power, this allows someone else to have autonomy so they can be in control of themselves. Using power to coerce people to do things creates helplessness, but also it requires a physical presence because the moment you aren’t there anymore, people will do what they can to get control back.

This leads to the most important point from Dr. Stutman: a leader is more or less a fan because it’s incredibly motivating to have the people you respect and admire rooting for you and wanting you to succeed.

“Me saying I’m your fan means nothing, but I’m going to demonstrate to you that I am in your corner and I’m trying my best to help you succeed in everyway you want to succeed and when you have that in your corner, it’s wind at your back and you’ll do anything for people that are great fans of yours.” - Dr. Stutman

He adds, “We all want parents, coaches, and teachers that are great fans and many of them aren’t unfortunately. They just don’t have that in their head. In fact, they think it’s about demand and challenge and a lot of other things of which there’s places for those things.”

These lessons came in August of 2021 and I hoped to put them into my coaching practice immediately. I love the idea of being a fan of others because sport is often a very competitive environment and it’s a zero-sum game. For every winner, there is a loser, but that isn’t necessarily accurate, as there is really only one winner in a tournament, and everyone else is a loser. When athletes start comparing how they finish relative to their teammates, that usually isn’t a healthy mentality because it just leads to thoughts like, “at least I did better than them”, and schadenfreude isn’t far behind, where one takes joy in another’s loss.

Over the course of the year, I feel the lessons were mostly positive. It was nice to be a fan of my athletes while I worked with them to help them be the best they could be with what they had. It was incredibly rewarding to work with the junior athletes, and I think that accepting and supporting them no matter how the end results were was something that both the athletes and their parents appreciated. However, it wasn’t all positive.

College-aged athletes were an interesting group to work with. This is a critical point because many have to choose between pursuing higher level competition, or usually quitting the sport to pursue their academic goals. Being thrown from an environment with support into one without support can be quite challenging, and I would understand that people in this age group lean heavily into their peer-groups for support. They may or may not have a good relationship with their parents, but it’s pretty much about them trying to find their own identity. Oddly, it can be quite difficult to be a fan, much like trying to be a fan of a niche indie music group: you sometimes gotta wait and let them figure things out.

Unfortunately, things got out of control. It’s like the indie group is going through a rough time and they take it out on their fans. Now I can’t directly be a fan of any athlete I used to work with anymore. In the end, the group is still struggling. Some members have already quit. The rest need to build a different fan base. But hey, that’s not my problem anymore.

But like I said, I can still choose who I want to be a fan of and I will still continue to root for and support those that truly appreciate it. We’ve all been fans of people or things that we no longer support. I mean, I used to like Kanye West, but people change.

So here I am, still “fanning” the flames of competition. It feels great to encourage others to try their best in sport and learn how to overcome difficulties. It feels great to help athletes break through fixed mindsets and achieve results they didn’t even believe were possible at first. It feels great to help others and to be finally happy for someone else’s success. It feels great to give back because you are eternally grateful for those who did the same for you.

We can be fans of many people and things, but we will still have our favourites. It’s okay though. You cannot help everyone, so why not just help those you cross paths with?

For those who I can no longer coach in an official capacity, I still support your journey. I still look forward to your successes. I’m still your fan.

For those I will work with in the future, I look forward to cheering you on and supporting you however I can.

And to those who are fans of me, thank you. It is because of you that I can help others too.

Photo credits: Chris Do (1st); Emily Yu (2nd)

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