November 09, 2022
The Cauldron Of Competition
Per ardua ad astra (“Through Struggles to the Stars”)A Roman Person
The benefits of regular exercise are well known and documented. Arguably less discussed are the benefits derived from competitive sports. I read an article recently that asked the question: ‘Where Are All The Adult Athletes’? I think its a great question and one for us all to consider. It’s tough entering middle-age and trying to get your kids through school while staying on top of your mortgage and the myriad financial and social obligations adults have to contend with. However, I think it is important that adult humans do not lose touch with the primal need to compete (in and through sports…in the real world).
Adult competition in sports should not be left to the players in the Olympics, NBA, NHL or NFL. Regular mortals should compete in sports, too, in order to 10x your well being in life.
Here are our top 5 benefits derived from competing in sports as an adult.
Embrace The Sweet Pain
In order to be competitive in sports, you have to train. Training often means putting yourself through uncomfortable daily routines, sometimes many times a day. It can also mean juggling long work hours with other family obligations while also maintaining your marriage and other relationships. Its hard, but worth it, and figuring out how to do it all makes you better as well. It can also break you.
Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker (“What does not kill me makes me stronger”)Friedrich Nietzsche
Competing in sports awakens latent, primal instincts and helps you to control them better. I remember wrestling in high school and practicing Judo in college. When I would get pinned or choked-out by an opponent, I would get a bit depressed in the realization that if the competition were a real fight, I would be dead. This realization motivated me to get better through smarter and harder training.
Now, as a masters rower, I hate the physical discomfort I feel near the end of 5k race. My lungs burn, my vision narrows, my arms often fall asleep, my back aches, all of which conspire to impede optimal performance. Its a constant battle to try to train better and harder to make rowing races more comfortable and rewarding, as if that’s even possible, while also doing my best to post-pone the inevitable end-of-life cycle.
Even just going to sports competitions is unpleasant. The night before, I am typically nervous and don’t sleep well. I have to constantly go to the bathroom. My heart pounds. It’s horrible. Yet, each competition is another chance to learn to relax, take deep breaths, be mindful of the situation, try to control your amygdala, and go for a win. Fear is an extremely powerful emotion - it takes practice to ‘master’ it. Competing in sports is a great place to continue practicing this mind control.
Note some of our mindfulness discussions in the following posts: ‘The Mindfulness Series’ and in ‘Verbal Judo - The Gentle Art Of Persuasion’.
But let’s face it - competing in sports can really suck. Waking up at 0430 to workout sucks. Losing sucks. Facing the realization of just how mediocre you really are - that sucks too. The physical pain of sports competition is no fun either. This probably explains why so few adults compete in sports.
And all of this pain and uncomfortableness is exactly why you should just do it.
Undergoing, and surviving, difficult circumstances can make you a better, stronger, tougher human being regardless of whether you win, lose or draw. Therein lies the beauty.
One of the best benefits I have derived from competing in masters rowing has been the friends I’ve made along the way. When you pursue your training with sufficient rigor such that it requires at least a daily commitment, especially if you are training as part of a team or club, you can almost not help but make social connections, if not friends, along the way. The same might be true when pursuing regular fitness pursuits, but I find it even more so when engaging in the heat of battle that is sports competition.
Here are some pictures of rowing friends we’ve made along the way.
Cindy has experienced the same phenomena when she started competing in Scottish Highland Games. Some competitive sports communities, such as Scottish Highland Games, can be fairly small, tight-knit communities that not only seek to out-perform one another on the field, but also rigorously help each other improve their personal performance when off the field.
Romantic connections are to be found in competitive sports as well. Training and competing in masters rowing races is how Cindy and I met. Just saying.
It is well known that exercise can increase organ and muscle size. For example, regularly lifting weights will invariably increase muscle size and mass. Similarly, the more you run the stronger your heart and lungs become. One interesting study of college rowers concludes that a competitive rowing regimen can be conclusively shown to produce ‘significant cardiac remodeling’.
Furthermore, rigorous regular exercise can help maintain brain function and size, effectively reversing the tendency for our brains to shrink as we age. Neuroscience studies have shown that the thinking brain, the prefrontal and medial temporal cortex, get bigger with exercise! Exercise expands cognition, learning and memory through higher blood flow, the promotion of neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells), and improves synapses between neurons for better communication between cells. These enhanced functions have been found to reduce the start of disease such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Most importantly, exercise reduces the number of stress receptors and thereby, stress hormones, in the brain also increasing the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin and acetylcholine. This brain chemical cocktail makes us feel calm and relaxed.
And finally, training and competition in the great outdoors can help improve overall health just by getting some sunshine on your skin (as long as its not too much).
E.O. Wilson termed biophilia as a human’s innate connection to nature. It is why we like house plants, trees, sunsets, a full moon, and gently falling snow. Studies have shown Americans spend about 93% of their time indoors, tearing us away from our evolutionary roots. This is often why we feel a general disconnection or dissatisfaction or a general sense of something missing in our lives that we can’t quite place. Often, we try to fill that unseen void with binge scrolling on social media.
But, what if we turned to exercise…outside.
Studies have shown that when contrasted with people who exercise indoors, those who exercise outside in nature have better moods and a more positive outlook with reduced emotions like anger, fatigue and depression.
Many sports, like rowing, can help you reconnect to the world around you and see nature in a different way. For example, we saw a shooting star while rowing the other morning. And most mornings on the water, we have had the privilege of watching the incredible colors of the sunrise paint the DC skyline incredible colors of orange and red as the sun rose. In fact, when the colors were most bright, our coach would often stop and point out the phenomenon. We would all be inspired and row even harder (mostly because we could actually see what we were doing after the sun came up). On rainy days with indoor workouts, we all missed the freshness of being outside. Our rowing practices innately restored within us a new relationship with nature.
Even on those early mornings with little sleep when we didn’t want to get up, we hoped our team and that sunrise were waiting.
Invariably, I derive unexpected inspiration from other athletes at the competitions I go to. When I attended the pre-race dinner at Ironman in Louisvilly, KY, it was so inspirational to hear many different stories of obstacles athletes had overcome just to be able to make it to the starting line. Many such experiences had to be harder than the Ironman race itself, such as overcoming cancer, limb amputation, addiction and extreme weight loss. Then, there have been times where I witnessed people running a marathon barefooted or with a 40 pound rucksack on their back. Or seeing a one-armed sculler row a head race!
I am grateful for the inspiring lives and stories of these people because they help me to level-set my mindset and hopefully help to keep me grateful and humble. I tend to be hard on myself and get depressed and angry when I don’t reach my competition goals, when the correct mindset should be gratefulness for even being able to get to the starting line and compete at all!
Competing in sports makes a human smarter, stronger and fitter. Sports competition awakens our primal instincts and teaches us to harness its power for helping to ensure our survival. Being uncomfortable and afraid is a big part of sports competition as is mastering our mind and body to overcome the pain and fear in pursuit of success.
The more we compete in sports, the more our brains and bodies evolve to successfully deal with adversity and the unknown. Benefits such as these are directly applicable to our longevity, professional and personal lives here on earth. Similarly, perhaps its not too much of a reach to think that sports competition could be a key component of humanity’s successful colonization of the universe as well.
Long live the human machine.
Shoot for the stars and be content with where you are.Dr. Cynthia Way Caple
- Jack Hickey
- Jim Rutherford
podcast learning entrepreneurship innovation learning personal growth intelligence fitness racing sports competition rowing judo wrestling swimming triathlon ironman cycling biophilia hocr hosr hoto acr potomac washington dc eowilson highlandgames nietzsche