Worth Doing Well (or at All?)

Posted: August 8, 2012 in Idealism, Idle Nonsense

Watching highlights of the 2012 London Olympics reminds me that despite many organized team and individual sports being thoroughly commoditized (sponsorship deals and advertising gigs are inked notoriously fast these days) and therefore corrupted (cheaters and thugs abound when stakes are raised too high), the nature of sport makes the whole endeavor still worth doing. Who can insist on not being inspired by those who train and compete for the thrill of victory, most of whom nonetheless experience the agony of defeat more often than not? For those of us who fall short of being Olympic athletes or sponsored pros, the same holds true for many types of athletic and fitness endeavors. I struggle sometimes, however, to distinguish between those things worth doing at all and those only worth doing well. One way I’ve heard this described is the Achievement Model and the Participation Model.

The Achievement Model requires a level of skill or expertise to make an activity worth the bother. Most of us give up on complicated skills such as juggling or playing the piano long before acquiring the dexterity necessary to make it worthwhile. Goofing around with bean bags or keyboards just doesn’t provide enough reward; it’s meaningless without skill. Similarly, when an endeavor can only be practiced in tandem, such as with tennis, team sports, or music, the frustration of not being able to rely upon others with similarly matched skill levels is often too much to bear. For example, it takes time and sustained effort to learn to strike a tennis ball reliably, and in the initial stages, one spends far more time chasing balls than hitting them. When players are badly mismatched, interest drains out — especially for skilled players. Interest also drains out of goals lacking challenge or those too easily achieved.

The Participation Model succeeds on the mere execution of an activity without regard to skill level or achievement. One gets credit for simply showing up. Kids’ sports where adult organizers refuse to keep score may be a good example, albeit controversial. The participation model is also reputed to be why weekend warriors are ruining the marathon by walking too much of it. Yet those who show up without conditioning, fitness, and/or skills often do so guilelessly and perhaps even joyously, happy just to be participating on any level at all. (Are athletes who compete at the Olympics without realistic medal hopes in this category?) This is also arguably related to one of the so-called tragedies of democracy, where anyone with an opinion (no matter how aberrant or irrational) and the willingness to promulgate an agenda forcefully can hopelessly derail democratic processes.

In most of my endeavors, I subscribe to the Achievement Model. That’s what creates interest: acquiring skill and expertise and using that prowess to accomplish things, however arbitrary they may be. That also means that I’m forced to refuse participation in certain tandem endeavors when skill levels are mismatched. My frustrations mount too high and I find my own level of activity suffering. The biggest exception for me is the triathlon, which is especially well-equipped to accommodate average folks and has thus experienced a swell of popularity. Whereas I’m a superior swimmer (among triathletes), I’m only an average cyclist and am regrettably a really poor runner. Because the field of participants is stratified by age, one has a fighting chance competing with chronological peers, not just a small cohort of pros who blow everyone away. Further, whatever mediocrity my triathlon results may possess, they take nothing away from others’ achievements.

Finally, when a given endeavor has a wide range of skill levels, that endeavor may fall into different achievement/participation categories for different individuals. This accounts for the controversy about the marathon — a truly monumental undertaking — but much less so the neighborhood 5K foot race. I have conceptual struggles with music, however. It’s among to most natural things in the world to behave musically and seek outlets for musical performance. But ensemble music is a tandem process where strikingly divergent skill levels lead to all kinds of problems. Finding the right fit isn’t easy despite the plethora of music groups around. My suspicion is that despite many participants, there are still too few achievers to populate superior musical groups. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Update: I forgot to mention a third model of which I’m aware. It might variously be called the Winning Model, the Championship Model, or the Scorched Earth Model. I prefer the middle one. Under the Championshp Model, the only thing that matters is a first-place win, or in the spirit of the just-completed Olympics, a gold medal. Second- and third-place medals or runners-up trophies are for chumps. Nobody gets a ribbon just for showing up. And in pursuit of that unwavering goal, the worst kinds of assholerly are given easy refuge. Not many people are willing to ruin themselves under this model, and those who commit to the Championship Model yet remain outside the winner’s circle are truly ruined. But those who triumph and end up on top are championed despite their obviously distorted character, much as I argued in my post about winning dirty.

  1. Thanks for sharing the comprehensive information about worth doing well.

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