To start, I want to give a little sports background on myself. I played Division 1 basketball at Loyola Chicago and at IUPUI, totaling over 1,000 points scored and earning a spot on the CoSIDA Academic All-American team my senior season. This led to an opportunity to play professionally in Spain in 2017-2018. I signed with a team and played for about half of a season before I decided it wasn’t for me anymore for various reasons. Towards the end of my career I learned some extremely valuable things that I feel like I should share to those athletes that are still in high school or college. In this piece, I want to talk about the pitfalls of comparison, envy, and failure in sports and life.
Most every person I know is knee-deep in the quicksand of comparison, feeling their confidence slowly sinking but not knowing why or how. Personally, I have found myself comparing my life, both internal and external, to the highlight reel of a person I don’t even know via social media. As ridiculous as that sounds, I believe more people than just me do this on a daily basis. It zaps our happiness and gives birth to a fakeness that everyone sees and no one likes or needs.
Not only is the disease of comparison rampant in the social media world, it is widespread in sports as well. There are a couple different types of comparisons athletes make that are harmful, and I think they are both extremely common. The one I struggled mightily with myself was the comparison between myself and other players in my conference/league/division that played the same position as me.
A firsthand example of this would be early on in my last season at IUPUI, I can remember our team winning and I had a great game. I was extremely happy and feeling good about it. Then later that night, like so many times before, I went to my phone and looked at the scores and stats from other teams and players. Inevitably, other teams had bigger wins and other players had better games than me. The satisfaction that I should have enjoyed for a night fled my presence because some player 500 miles away had stats that looked better than mine. Theodore Roosevelt said it best- “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I soon learned I needed to simply only focus on myself and my team.
Another type of comparison, one I always had to deliberately fight off, was the one between myself and my teammates. This is one that I think can be the most debilitating to athletes, especially because it usually strikes you when you are young and grinding for a spot. Although knowingly taboo and wrong to think, it was often incredibly hard not to secretly want my teammate to fail on the court or field if they were in my way of more playing time. While feelings like this typically crept up in practice and games without notice, it was always important to me to push them aside and instead think about how I could be a great teammate.
Towards the end of my career, instead of selfishly giving in to these jealous thoughts I remembered this: It is almost impossible to be envious of someone you are encouraging. Not surprisingly, once I started focusing on ALWAYS encouraging and cheering on my teammates instead of comparing our personal performances, contentment, joy, and friendship started to bloom and envy dissolved. To me, replacing this brand of comparison with true encouragement and support is the definition of putting the team first.
“Every time you compare, you’re going to fall guilty to either pride or envy. You’re always going to either find somebody who’s doing a better job than you, and you get full of envy, or you’re going to find that you’re doing a better job than somebody, and you get full of pride. And God says it’s foolish . You shouldn’t do it. You are one of kind. You are incomparable.” -Pastor Rick Warren
So why do we all feel the need to compare in the first place? After what was discussed in detail above, it is clear to me that failure plays a huge part in both comparison and envy. We compare because we want to feel like we have failed less than our peers, and we are envious of those who seem to have less failures than us. This has all led me to the point I want to bring up about failure, how there is an alternate outlook on it that, if embraced, can push you to be better.
I’m not going to tell you that failure is something to seek, or that failure is the end result you should desire. Failure is what it is: Disheartening and unwanted. With this in mind, it is still important to value failure. My first three years of college I shot terrible from the 3 point line, and I was supposed to be a shooter... It was about as “failure” as you can get in sports, and I felt it deep in my bones every day. I always worked harder than most people (comparison again!), yet I was still coming up short. In my final offseason I realized it wasn’t just about working harder than others, it was about working as hard as I had to work to be where I wanted to be.
Finally, my senior season I shot 45% from deep and had my best ever personal season. If I had shot average my first three years, I probably would have only shot average my senior year. Failure drove my hard work. Failure allowed me to be a great shooter, not a good one. Failure is terrible, but it is a necessity because as Bill Gates once said, “success is a lousy teacher; It seduces smart people into thinking they are better than they truly are.”
In conclusion, it is clear that the fear of failure leads to comparison, comparison leads to envy, and “where envy and rivalry are, there also are unrest and every vile deed” (James 3:16). For several years I gave in to these three stumbling blocks, and after finally avoiding them all my last few years, I realize how far they once held me back.