Competitive Advantage

We’ve all seen them for sale at track & field meets.  Tie-dye shirts that scream “Track is Life”.  Intending to mean that competitive success requires sacrifice and devoted attention to training, this simple statement also connotes that competition serves as a potent educator for the race of life.  But what it teaches you depends on your vantage point.  

Staring down their lane, each runner anxiously awaits the marking command.  Readying for set, the competitors inch toward the start which has been precisely measured to normalize distance to the finish.  Acting on the gun, the sprinters overcome a nearly equal distribution of invisible, yet very real, barriers to speed in the form of gravity, wind, and ground reaction forces.  On a track that seems to be free of obstruction, these hidden hurdles combine to test each athlete’s strength, technique, and capacity in order to see who entered the arena most prepared.  While the eight-lane oval does an adequate job of teaching athletes the importance of preparation for fixed hazards, the world outside of the stadium has vastly different competitive standards.  

During my time as a collegiate track & field coach, part of my responsibility was recruiting.  Combing through performance lists, reading through a pile of athletic resumes delivered through a scouting service, and travelling to track meets all provided a starting point from which to finalize a recruitable base worthy of scholarship.  As any diligent coach would do, I attempted to vet these candidates through the equal consideration of competitive performance and academic prowess. This tier-system was used to gauge their future success as a student and athlete.  What I learned through the journey was that the lens through which we typically perceive the past and predict someone’s future is grossly out of focus.

In 2003, things were starting to look up.  Building from the previous year’s momentum, I metaphorically hit the road with a goal of signing the region’s best talent that an in-state scholarship could afford.  With performance marks in hand, the first stops along the way were to the local high schools.  Being a local myself, I also carried a pre-existing knowledge of the area which I anticipated would hasten the recruiting process.  Early into the commitment season, this plan was showing promise as we landed four commitments including a nationally ranked high-hurdler along with the state’s 400m champion. 

Full steam ahead, I turned attention to another city school where two senior short-sprinters were vocalizing an interest in running in front of the home crowd.  While both met the performance criteria set forth by my check-sheet, only one had the grades that guaranteed academic admission.  Continuing with my efforts and hoping for academic leniency, both recruits were brought onto campus for further interview.  And through those interviews, it became startlingly clear that while being a native of the area provided me a greater understanding of the geographical layout, I was overlooking the cultural topography.  A topography of hidden, unconsidered, and uniquely-perceived obstacles that sit atop the predictable landscape.

Similar to the track, we are consistently cued to maintain sight between the borders of our own lane; under caution that looking across the lane divider slows our forward progress.  Though a great teaching tool on the track, this close-minded approach to the race of life impairs us from seeing hidden hurdles that pepper the path of others.  

With steadfast focus on our victory, we innocently and naively press forward to the finish under the presumption that race conditions are equal.  However, through that blind-eye we fail to conclude if victory is indeed achieved on fair footing or results from an unseen competitive advantage.

Reflecting on the conversations with those recruits, what I observed was two individuals who raced the same event but ran different routes.  While one was afforded time to concentrate on the books and blocks, the other rushed out of practice to work in fast-food.  While one was welcomed by a stay at home parent, the other came from a single-parent home. While one was encouraged to finish their homework, the other helped their younger sister finish hers.  While one was gently nudged to take over the family business, the other was hoping to remove some of the financial burden off of a mother who worked two jobs.  While one was being considered a finalist for academic scholarship, the other was fighting like hell to gain admission.

Two athletes exiting one school having experienced contrasting realities.  Realities that remain unseen by those who fail to look beyond their own lane.  Lanes that wall us off from seeing the invisible hardships that work to stunt others’ success.  Success that cannot be awarded by simply looking at who finishes first and claims victory.  A victory that is meaningless when the rest of the field is not running the same route.