Why the Ancient Greeks Believe Competition Was Sacred

Practicing grit, composure, and resourcefulness gives us the ingredients for success in any aspiration we hold.

When we think of competition, we may think that its sole purpose is to prove our superiority over others and to find out who is worthy and who is unworthy. Whether it is spectating or participating as a competitor, it does feel good to be on the winning side of a competitive event. However, the dichotomy of winner and loser is lacking. What we may not fully comprehend is how important competition is to civilization and how it benefits those of us who have no aspirations to win. Competition’s original purpose can be extracted through etymology and by examining historical examples of competition; understanding the history of competition gives us a window into how competing can enrich our experience in CrossFit and in the rest of our lives.

Competition Is Sacred

The ancient Greeks treated competition as a sacred endeavor. Competitive festivals were religious, held in honor of the gods and local heroes, and competitors offered their performances as tribute. More revealing, athletic events were accompanied by artistic competitions, including music, dancing, sculpture, and acting. Mastering any form of art or athletic event requires years of devoted training and practice. To the Greeks, all acts of mastery were worthy of offering to the gods, because there is virtue in struggle, in striving for better. All acts of mastery, those that require careful training and practice to perfect, therefore, are sacred. It was not to prove who was greatest among them in their chosen fields that drove the Greeks to compete, or to win prizes (the only prize was a wreath of leaves): it was to offer in tribute the effort, struggle, and the sacrifice that is required of mastery.

Etymology, the study of the origin of words, has a lot to tell us about the original intention of competition. The word compete is derived from two Latin words: com and petere. Petere means “to seek” or “to strive” and com means “together.” Every type of competition, from career to playwriting to the CrossFit Open, is an act of striving together towards greater human achievement. It is competition that drives the physical, artistic, exploratory, and innovative endeavors that define the greatest in humanity. Examine the history of many inventions (the sewing machine, the lightbulb, and the personal computer) and we find that it was competition with their contemporaries that drove inventors to perfect their designs. Return again to ancient Greece and we find that some of the greatest plays ever written were created for competition: at the Dionysia, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles presented their greatest tragic works. Without competition, some of the tales that have shaped human understanding would never have been created: The Oresteia, The Bacchae, and Oedipus Rex to name a few.

It may be difficult to see the connection between competing as a scaled CrossFitter in the CrossFit Games Open and the race for flight. Competition fuels the elite and the driven, but how does participating in competition impact those of us who have no aspirations to come in on top? Perhaps we won’t be surmounting Mount Everest or putting a man on the moon or writing Antigone (more feats fueled by competition), but we are giving ourselves a critical practice opportunity, one that has ties to every desire and goal we hold, and it is this, as a coach, that I see as the most important benefit of competing.

CrossFit Competition

The Character of Competition

Competition is low-stakes practice at four vital character skills. These skills transfer to the whole of our lives (our careers, relationships, and goals) and are fundamental to achieving any desire.

Character Skill 1: Grit

Grit is the skill of following through. Competitors use competition to create a plan for the following week, season, or year to improve their performance in the future. But creating the plan is only the first step. It is the daily follow through of working on weaknesses, even when results are not apparent (also known as “the process”), that earns results. Grit is a combination of discipline and focus. It is doing what needs to be done when motivation has long left the building.

Character Skill 2: Composure Under Pressure

Composure is non-negotiable for performing well in any arena. We are at our best when we are thoughtful, when we behave with intention, and when we are focused on the task at hand. Think of how valuable it will have been to have practiced remaining composed while we are nervous, upset, or angry going into a work meeting or a difficult conversation with a loved one. Think of how building the skills of mental fortitude and equanimity will benefit our friends and family when they need to lean on us in times of trouble. Under the worst-case scenarios in life, composure under pressure transforms us into a harbor in stormy seas, for ourselves and for others.

Character Skill 3: Resourcefulness and Adaptability

Inevitably, life is going to throw challenges our way. Our ability to be flexible in our plans, to embrace change as a certainty, gives us an advantage in competition, career, and relationships. Think of how it will benefit us to have practiced resourcefulness if we were to lose our homes or our jobs. Think of how adaptability plays a huge role in making ourselves more valuable to the teams we are on (both personal and professional). Going with the flow, determinedly seeking answers and solutions to problems, is a skill worth practicing.

Character Skill 4: Recognizing Our Value

Today we see competitions as a place for the elite to display their prowess. The CrossFit Games Open is the first step on the way to the CrossFit Games, the winners of which are titled The Fittest Man and The Fittest Woman on Earth. For those of us without aspirations to win, those of us who train to be a healthier, better version of ourselves, we may be asking, “What do I have to contribute towards the greatness of humanity?”

Listen, and I will tell you: you have everything to contribute towards the greatness of humanity.

Participating in a competition of this scale is about recognizing that our effort is as valuable as the effort of the fittest athletes we train with. After all, effort is effort. It doesn’t matter if we get 100 reps or 30 reps. The only thing that matters is that we gave everything we had.

We have been told by our coaches that giving our best effort is what is important. Do we understand that our best effort is an honor that we bestow upon our fellow CrossFitters? Much like the Greeks honoring the gods, the effort we give in the Open is a tribute: to ourselves, to our friends, to our coaches, and to our fellow CrossFitters. It is sacred to give full effort to any endeavor, regardless of the results.

You Will Become a Better Human

Imagine now how viewing everything we do as a tribute to what we love focuses us and changes us into more thoughtful humans. If we give our best effort to our relationships, our careers, and our bodies, how does that change our lives? If we treat every one of our interactions and every facet of our work as practice, as a step towards attaining mastery, does our life become richer, more meaningful? If we learn to value those people or movements that drive us to think and work harder, to value our nemeses (another word whose origin is telling: the goddess Nemesis’ purpose was to eradicate the hubris of humans), how does that change our relationship to challenges and struggles outside of the gym?

We can see easily that competition drives human achievement among the elite, but competition has so much more to offer us than simple assessment. It gives us, the regular, wonderful people in the gym with all of the potential in the world, opportunities to practice character skills that transfer to the rest of our lives. Practicing grit, composure, and resourcefulness gives us the ingredients for success in any aspiration we hold. Learning to recognize that it is our effort, not our results, that has value enriches every experience that we have. Competition benefits everyone. It’s time to participate.

Photos courtesy of TJ Danenza.

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