Competition can bring out the best in us, or the absolute worst of our animal nature. I am highly competitive, but when push comes to shove, I fall apart in spectacular ways because I lack the killer instinct.
Some years ago, I was an archer, traveling around the country to compete in tournaments. One of my favorites was the enormous World Archery Festival, held every year in Las Vegas, and attended by thousands. I was having my best year since I started shooting and, by some miracle, had just won the New York State Indoor championship. I was certain I could take home a prize in Vegas.
On the first day of the tournament, out of 30 arrows, I shot 30 bull’s eyes. Yes, a perfect score! [Full Disclosure: While it may sound amazing, there are actually plenty of people who shoot 30 out of 30 all the time in Vegas, but I’d never done it. Also, the bull’s eyes are larger in Vegas than in any other tournament, but that’s none of your business.]
The next day, I was ready to continue my reign. I was riding high. Spectators were watching me. There was only one problem – spectators were watching me. When under pressure, I fold like a cheap Chinatown paper fan. Did I mention that spectators were watching me? My first arrow was a bull’s eye. Dead center. However, it was nothing to rejoice about…because I shot it into somebody else’s target. Translation: rookie mistake. Competitors with the killer instinct do not make this error.
I had completely blown my chances. Everything after that was a blur, although I do remember my friends, Dave and Bryan, picking me up by the elbows and transporting me to the nearest bar stool. Bryan’s instruction to the bartender was very specific, “Serve her margaritas until we tell you to stop.”
Three weeks later, the USA Indoor Nationals were being held in Andover, Massachusetts. The calamity of Las Vegas was behind me and I was ready for this two-day event. I’d learned from my mistakes. I had my confidence back. The first day of shooting went better than I’d hoped. But I wondered how my competition was doing.
When we arrived at the venue on the second day, the standings were posted on the wall.
As I walked toward it, my friend and fellow archer, Pete, grabbed my arm and warned, “Don’t do it.”
“Why not?” I asked. But I knew why not. Pete knew why not. Anyone who had ever met me knew why not.
“I’ll look at it for you,” Pete offered. He walked over to the wall, looked at the postings, and returned. “Let’s go shoot,” he said, without expression. He wasn’t giving anything away.
“Oh, c’mon!” I said. “This is silly.” As I walked toward the score sheet, Pete warned me again, but this time more forcefully, “Do not do that!”
I ignored him and searched the list for my name. It didn’t take long to find it…I was in second place. I slapped my hand over my mouth and squealed like a piglet with it’s tail caught in the barn door.
“Well,” Pete sighed, “that’s the end of that.”
Pete’s a pretty smart guy and it seems he can predict the future. That second day of shooting was a disaster. I went home empty-handed, again.
If they gave awards for “Choking,” I’d have to rent out storage space for all my trophies.
I don’t shoot any more, but I compete in other ways. My new favorite “sport” is Words With Friends. This is where my killer instinct surfaces. Yes, I am that person who will play a chintzy 2-point word to block you from using a triple word bonus. I’ve become so competitive at Words With Friends that I now have to call it Words With Random Opponents because none of my “friends” want to play with me anymore.
But that’s in the virtual world. In the real world, I’m not competitive unless there’s something truly worth winning. Occasionally, however, I find myself an unwitting participant, in the midst of a competition of which I want no part. You know what I’m talking about, right? Just go to any reunion, cocktail party, any time or place when people have an opportunity to talk about their kids. This is where that killer instinct rears its ugly head with a vengeance.
Here are two of my favorite “competitive parent” moments, but first a little back story…
My son had the privilege and misfortune of attending an obsessively competitive school. The students obsessed over grades. Their parents obsessed over their kids getting into Ivy League colleges, at all costs. They were not “helicopter parents.” They were “stealth bomber parents.”
This first tidbit took place at a back-to-school night, when my husband and I ran into the “Farrugut-Uppingtons.”
FUs: How was your summer?
Me: Great! How about yours?
FUs: What did your son do over the vacation? [Answering a question with a question…it should have been a tipoff.]
Me: [Naively falling headfirst into their trap] He went sailing with the boy scouts, spent some time on Cape Cod and then did some things locally. What about your son?
FUs: [Suddenly puffed up to twice their original size] Well, Robespierre had a summer internship at Johns Hopkins University. He co-wrote a medical paper with his mentor, about the relationship between ADD medication and superior standardized test scores. It was in the New England Journal of Medicine. Perhaps you read it.
Me: [thinking to myself] Eff you.
In a panic, I took my husband aside and whispered, “Oh my god! Is that the kind of thing our son should be doing over the summer?”
My husband, who is completely immune to such parental shenanigans, calmly said, “It’s called a vacation for a reason.”
My second story involves parents’ visiting day. We were gathered in the cafeteria for lunch. Our children were freshmen, so naturally all everybody was talking about was getting them into Harvard. Here’s a snippet of that conversation:
Parent A: We told our daughter “It’s Harvard or nothing.”
Parent B: Same for our son. He’s already got the grades…and we’re legacy, so…
Parent A: [claws inching out] What did he get on that last bio test?
Parent B: What did your daughter get? [Apparently, Parent B had already been to this rodeo.]
Me: [trying to quell the brewing storm] Well, they’re coming from this school, so that’ll be a leg up.
Parent A: You can’t count on that. Robespierre’s sister ended up at SUNY Albany! [She said this in a breathless, gaspy way, while clutching her pearls…as if going to SUNY Albany were akin to being thrown on a slag heap, naked and bleeding.]
Me: [A proud graduate of SUNY Albany] Ahem…
From underneath the table, I could feel my husband place his foot on top of mine and gently, but firmly, apply pressure. His eyes widened and he made a face perceptible solely to me. He was speaking the silent language that can only exist between partners who have been married for a very long time – newlyweds cannot pull this off. His soundless shouting was loud and clear – Don’t start! They’ll eat you alive.
I kept my mouth shut, which was easy by this point, because I was gnashing my teeth.
For the remainder of my son’s high school career, I never got wise to these sorts of set ups and fell for them every single time. In the long run, none of it mattered anyway. All I care about is that our son got into the college he most wanted, he loves it there and he sounds happy every time we hear from him.
So, what ever happened to those students, whose parent used them in their constant one-upmanship tournaments? Many of them got into the schools they so desperately wanted (and when I say “they” I mean their “parents”). As for Robespierre Farragut-Uppington? Rumor has it he got expelled for selling ADD meds on his college campus…at SUNY Albany.