Play Hard! What the Competitive Spirit Has Done to Us


THERE is nothing more amusing to the observer of human nature than the American business man on shipboard in mid-Atlantic — especially when homeward bound. For some weeks or months he has been far from conferences, sales reports, and ‘your esteemed favor of the third inst.’; he has been separated by leagues of water from the stress and strain of office life. But at last he is returning. Is he happy? He is. Like an old war horse he sniffs the battle from a distance; over fifteen hundred miles of ocean the sound of the guns comes faintly to his ears. The competitive spirit which is inculcated on all American citizens begins slowly to take repossession of his soul. Soon life will again be worth living.

But meanwhile the days are long and time drags. From deck to deck he wanders abstractedly with a book under his arm which he neither has read nor is likely to read. At ten o’clock in the morning his attention is momentarily diverted by the daily newspaper, that meagre and tantalizing sheet which is distributed on all big liners. Æons, centuries pass, and at last it is noon; the ship’s run is posted, a speculative item of interest in the twentyfive hours. More œons go by and it is three o’clock; horse racing in the Louis XIV Salon aft. At four a shuffleboard tournament is held on the boat deck and after dinner the ship’s pool is auctioned off in the smoking room by the distinguished Mr. X.

You may have noticed that all pleasures and entertainments provided on shipboard are cleverly calculated to appeal to one thing — to the competitive spirit of the American traveler. Quite properly so, too, since every good native of the United States has the competitive spirit instilled in him from his earliest days, deepened and strengthened in school and college, and in the world of affairs. After all, it is the competitive spirit, is it not, which has made us the great nation we are to-day?

But despite these appeals to his instinct, despite the approaching nearness of his native shores, the American business man is not really happy until the last day, when, with the engines stilled, he comes on deck in the morning to find the finer anchored off the green shores of Staten Island. What a change has come over him! Gone is the shipboard costume, the soft shirt, the golf trousers, the white shoes faced with black; now he is dressed and ready for action. And if a change is noticeable in his attire, what a change in his looks and attitude! Vanished is the listless, bored expression which he wore in mid-ocean; now his eyes sparkle, his glance is keen and attentive, his whole being is mobilized for the coming fray.

Observe his manner, no longer slow and detached; now it is — ‘Excuse me, where did you get that newspaper? Steward, where can I get a morning paper? In the Salon on C Deck?’ Off he goes like a runner from the mark. Follow him down to C Deck, watch his eager and excited absorption in the first American newspaper he has seen on the date of publication since he left home. He is going over the market quotations. General Motors at 25 1/2. Whew! Telephone at 135. Ah, now he is in it all again, back in the centre of things; this is something like. Two hours from this moment he will be sitting with his feet under that familiar desk, running over his accumulated mail, dictating letters, talking into the telephone, and shaking hands with the sales force all at the same time — part and parcel of the great struggle once more. No wonder he paces along the deck with quick, excited steps as the liner raises anchor and moves slowly up the Hudson.

Alas, I am only too well aware of what an idiot the average American business man succeeds in making of himself under these circumstances, because, having been reared in the competitive spirit, I do precisely the same thing myself on returning from Europe each summer. Possibly you have acted in much that way, possibly you also have felt that peculiar thrill on returning to scenes you were so happy to desert but a few months previously. This was the effect of the competitive spirit. In the following pages I propose to observe the consequences of the competitive spirit, of the ‘play hard’ idea, in our social and business life, in our athletics, both in those sports which are recreational and informal and in those organized spectacles which we attend as spectators every year. And I shall ask ibis question: Is the competitive spirit worth while?


Such a question at first seems absurd. Is the competitive spirit worth while? Of course it is. Without the competitive spirit we should to-day be a small and second-rate nation; in industrial life as well as in athletics it has been a factor — and no mean factor, either — in our development to our position as a world power. To individuals and to nations, to sportsmen and to business men, the competitive spirit is necessary for success. Yes, of course. I agree. Rut before looking at the competitive spirit in its larger aspects it might be interesting to see how it often works out in practice among human beings.

It was a beautiful morning in October; ideal for golf. Air crisp and cool, little wind, turf just right. From the first tee you could see the blue waters of Long Island Sound sparkling in the brilliant sunshine. We were four evenly matched players, all eager and exhilarated in pleasurable anticipation of several hours’ keen sport that lay ahead. But the entire morning was ruined by Jones, my partner.

Curious fellow, this Jones. Plays a useful game of golf, but you cannot depend upon him. Had he been paying attention to business, we should have had a first-rate match, and he and I would have given those two a beating. As it was, the miserable chap would not concentrate upon the game. For instance, when we reached the third green he stopped to admire the view of the Sound, and in consequence missed an easy eight-inch putt which would have given us the hole. He was inattentive and careless in his drives and messed them up consistently. Worst of all was his obnoxious good humor. He appeared to be enjoying himself and to insist on enjoying himself merely because it was a beautiful morning in fall and he was in the open air. Ridiculous! He did not have his heart in his shots or his mind on the game in the least; he did not attempt to take the play carefully. This was really most annoying; it completely upset the rest of us and ruined our golf for the round. I was particularly annoyed because, had he really tried, we could have beaten those two fellows. Not that victory is everything; no, of course not, but then . . .

Obviously, we three agreed later, Jones had let us down badly. He had spoiled the morning’s sport. Never again would we ask him to play a foursome. In fact, we were all rather fed up on him and thoroughly disliked the man. It was not until some time later, in a cooler moment, that, in thinking it over, disturbing thoughts flickered through my mind. I began to wonder whether Jones really was as unsportsmanlike as he appeared to be. The more one considered it from every angle, the more one looked at the affair logically, the less did our attitude seem correct and the more sensible did Jones appear.

But one should play hard. One should give one’s best. Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well. One should always, in sport, try as hard as one possibly can. Let’s see if we can’t break a hundred this morning. Then we will attempt to break ninety next week, and eighty next month. Why? Because it seems eminently desirable to do so, because trying hard and breaking records is part of our sporting credo. Because unfortunately we have been brought up that way, and because, sheep that we are, we have never asked ourselves the ultimate value of the thing, we have never thought the problem through to the end. Never have we asked ourselves that embarrassing question: Why? Why? What difference does it all make in the cosmic scheme of things? A game is a game — nothing more. Despite the slogans and the preaching of the athletic Babbittry, notwithstanding the clichés of those who extol the character-building values of sport, a game is a game. It is difficult for us to appreciate this. That merely goes to show the mental state into which we have worked ourselves regarding athletics in this country.

Granted that one should take one’s life work with an amount of seriousness, put into it the best one has, what does that leave for relaxation and recreation? We should take our work seriously, yes, but why should we take our games and sports seriously? If Jones wishes to enjoy the open air, the color of the changing leaves on the trees, the feel of that springy turf under his feet, if he desires to appreciate the kindly fruits of the earth, why should he be asked to concentrate upon every putt as though a failure to sink it meant that the United States would abandon the gold standard? Why should he be forced to treat a game as a task? Because . . . well, because what? Simply because we have all been brought up in this belief and it is difficult to divest ourselves of it.

But that morning, you may suggest, there was far more than just an individual game at stake. It was team against team. Jones was not merely playing for himself. He was playing for his side; he had a responsibility to his team; he had no right to do as he pleased. There were others to consider. One should give one’s best in sport for the sake of the other man or men; one should play hard for the team. Why? Because otherwise one would let the team down. Alas, few of us have the moral courage to reply to this argument, ‘What of it?’


‘Americans,’ Lord Knebworth once remarked, ‘are a race of sporting athletes gone mad on success. The English are a race of unsuccessful athletes gone mad on sportsmanship.’

Several years ago I happened to be playing in the finals of a deck tennis tournament, on a liner at sea, against a young Englishman. More adept than myself, he led two sets to love until I discovered that many of his fast services were sailing out, and, by allowing them to fly past instead of trying vainly to catch them, I finally managed to win. Yet all through the five sets it was noticeable that he kept taking many of my services which also would have been out. Afterward I mentioned this.

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but if you don’t take them you don’t get much play.’

What he wanted, you see, was a game, sport, exercise. What I wanted was victory. We each obtained the thing we sought; but naturally I was somewhat ashamed of myself as we sat together over a whiskey and soda in the smoking room. I need n’t have been. It was my education and training that were at fault, that had engendered the attitude which treats a game as something which one should go in to win. To play fair, but to play hard; to give one’s best, and if possible to win.

‘The football grind is killing the sport,’ said Mr. William W. Roper of Princeton, a gentleman who ought to know what he is talking about. ‘If this drudgery is not eliminated in the next five years the players will step aside . . . the game will be stopped from the inside and not from the outside if these conditions remain.’

This remark is as significant as if a private in the German army had snubbed Field Marshal von Hindenburg during the war. There is a thought in it for the football coaches of the nation. Will they take it to heart? Not likely. ‘Play hard’ is their god. Obviously it must be, for the competitive spirit is the thing which brings victory, and victory in sport is the token of success in the United States. Said the Baltimore Sun, speaking editorially last year of the Notre Dame football eleven: ‘The names of its backs are known everywhere; its scores are as familiar (and more) than stock quotations; and the anecdotes about its coach multiply as once they did around the life and deeds of soldiers and pioneers and explorers. It is readily understandable. There is success, and success we are bound to admired The italics are not those of the Baltimore Sun.

Of course. Victory! There you have success in the United States—produced by the competitive spirit, by the ‘play hard’ idea translated into action upon the gridiron. But observe that it is this same competitive spirit which has made the tremendous mental as well as physical strain of all modern athletics, such sports as intercollegiate football, Davis Cup tennis, international golf championships, and the like. These contests are not amusing for the participants; they are not fun; they are work — work of the most nerve-racking nature, made so by the competitive spirit.

The keynote to competition is concentration. One does n’t need to be a golf champion or an All-American end to appreciate this. All of us, from the veriest dub to the captain of the Notre Dame eleven, are perfectly aware of it. And concentration necessarily excludes everything else, pushes everything into second place in our minds; good sportsmanship, good fun, enjoyment, all this disappears as we are seized and gripped by the competitive spirit.

‘Competitive experience,’ says Mr. Gene Tunney, ‘teaches the victor to be modest and the loser to be generous.’ Rubbish! It does nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it is competitive experience and the competitive spirit which bring forth clashes in international sport such as the recent Gar Wood episode at Detroit. Dismayed, in tears that his shabby trick was broadcast to the world and that he was so universally condemned, Mr. Wood cried: ‘I am a sportsman!’ This is true. I for one believe him implicitly. When a man does a thing of this kind he does it not because he is dishonest but because he wants excessively to win. Only under the stress of playing hard, only when the will for victory, the competitive spirit, urges him on, would he do the sort of trick that he would never consider in a normal moment.

I remember once in an important Davis Cup match how a really great competitive player, a gentleman and a sportsman who was blessed — cursed, if you like — with the competitive spirit to an intense degree, found himself in danger of losing a critical contest to a younger and better adversary on the next afternoon. Secretly he arranged for the court on which the match was to be played to be deluged for two hours that evening, two hours early the next morning, and an hour just before the two men were to appear. At his request also the balls were put in a refrigerator overnight. All this done to slow down the play and give the man an opportunity to win — which he took, successfully.

Competitive experience teaches modesty and generosity? Yes, certainly; exactly as war teaches chivalry, thoughtfulness, and kindliness. Indeed, as most sport is conducted at present, it is often little better than a minor-league war.


‘The game that is n’t worth winning is n’t worth playing,’ said a leading collegiate athletic authority recently in a speech. This is a happy instance of the muddled thinking which we often accept without asking that impertinent question: Why? The insertion of the word ‘game’ in t hat sentence makes it a contradiction in terms. A game is a game, nothing more; it carries with it — or should carry with it — no more obligation for victory than an aviator has to risk his life when he rises into the air. The mere fact that many of us resent the attitude of a player who refuses to push himself to the physical limit in order to win a game, that we are upset when someone with balance treats sport as sport, simply shows how far most of us have been lost in the clutches of the competitive spirit and how little real cerebration we have done regarding the true purposes of athletics.

But the sporting cliché is ever with us. It started a century ago when the Duke of Wellington, quite forgetting that a Frenchman named Napoleon staged a useful imitation of an army with men who had never known the benefit of cricket and rugger, remarked that Waterloo was won upon the playing fields of Eton. Whenever you hear ponderous statements about the moral values of football, when someone descants upon self-control and chivalry through sport, when you hear it said that sport is useful for the building of character — laugh. When someone suggests that whatever is worth doing is worth doing well, and that therefore we should always play our best and try as hard as we can to win, ask that perplexing question: Why? Why indeed? It is not, never was, and never will be the purpose of athletics to teach the moral values of life. That is the task of religion — even in a pagan country such as the United States.

As a nation we could well afford to forget all the parrot cries about the character-building qualities of sport and learn to play — to enjoy ourselves in games in the open air without any thought of winning, as if winning were merely a side issue and not the be-all and end-all of sport which it is to-day. ‘The curse of intercollegiate athletics,’ said Professor Theodore Linn of the University of Chicago, ‘ is the will to win.’ And the head of a great Eastern preparatory school, writing to me, recently remarked: ‘The boys come down from their preparatory schools with a good deal of chivalry in them, and are prepared to respond to appeals of fair play and for putting college games on the highest plane. In too many instances they are met by hardened veterans who tell them to cut out their Sunday School ideas and to get hold of the fact that “We Want to Win.” ’

Intercollegiate athletics and international sport, with the huge superstructures they have built up and the vast sums of money they involve, can never be freed from the intense desire for victory. Even the able men who often direct them are lost in the tremendous clamor for a winning eleven or a victorious crew that arises on all sides after a continuous series of defeats. Possibly victory has its place in the scheme of such things, perhaps it really is important for a college or a nation to be victorious, and perhaps victory has some mystical value that many of us cannot perceive. But when four men go out for a morning of exercise early in the fall with the sunshine brilliant and the leaves aglow, surely then victory holds or should hold no place in the day. In our individual games and sports we can ask ourselves whether the competitive spirit is quite as valuable as we have been led to believe; whether there is any vital reason to carry into our athletics that mental drive which spurs us on in business and life; whether we should n’t get infinitely more recreation and possibly also even more ultimate satisfaction from the game if for once we did n’t attempt to break ninety or to beat the pair across the net, but just enjoyed the open air, the sunshine, the freedom from telephones, visitors, insurance salesmen, and the other things that constitute our everyday life — if for once in a while we hit the ball with never a thought of the final result.

A wise and penetrating Englishman once made some true remarks about the relationship between sport and life. His name was W. H. Hudson, and he said: ‘I also asked if the old squire had ever tried to establish or suggested to them any kind of reunions to take place from time to time, or any entertainment or festival to get them to come pleasantly together, making a brightness in their lives — something which would not be football or cricket, nor any form of sport for a few of the men, all others being mere lookers-on and the women and children left out altogether; something which would be for and include everybody, from the oldest gray laborer no longer able to work to the toddling little ones, something of their own invention, peculiar to Norton, which would be their pride, and make their village dearer to them? And the answer was still no, and no, and no.’


Naturally the competitive spirit is responsible for the growth and development of the nation; this it was which sent men across an ocean to a wilderness inhabited by savages, enabled them to fight and seize part of the coast line for their own, and later sent their children exploring eagerly inland and their grandchildren farther inland until finally the continent had been crossed and conquered. All this was done thanks to the competitive spirit; the bold pioneers with the will to win left Europe, the timid ones stayed there, so that to-day we in this country have the competitive spirit in our blood — it is part of our subconscious selves.

Now the descendants of those adventurers use the competitive spirit in other ways; we are a nation to-day of record breakers. The best golf and tennis champions, the best runners and jumpers, the best football teams and crews, are ours, produced by the competitive spirit. In every walk of life one sees the effects of the competitive spirit; thus we can boast of the most brainless movie stars, the sturdiest flagpole sitters and marathon dancers, the tallest buildings, the longest bridges, the biggest oranges, the hugest deficits, the greatest municipal scandals, the worst crooks in the universe. Yes, even Mr. Al Capone is nothing more than a living tribute to the competitive spirit in the United States to-day.

Get away from the competitive spirit in this country you cannot. It is to be seen and its effects to be observed on every hand. To-day it has made us a nation of super-salesmen. Can this be one reason why we are so cordially disliked everywhere abroad? Possibly; at any rate it is amusing to observe the effects of the competitive spirit in American business. True that competition is the life of trade, quite true that without competition we should never have reached the unheard-of degree of prosperity which the nation now enjoys. But let us be specific, or rather let me be specific, and see how it works out in a particular instance.

A steamship company running a line to Bermuda and the West Indies suffers a falling off in profits. Its boats are half full. Officials go to a nation-wide corporation that sells electric refrigerators and ask an embarrassing question of the general sales manager: ‘What are YOU doing to stimulate sales?’ The poor man, who is behind on his yearly quota, looks out the window and does not reply. Instantly a deal is made. For a cheap rate the steamship company sells the sales manager fifty round-trip tickets to Bermuda. The latter at once starts a drive. The salesmen in the fifty districts where the corporation sells refrigerators all over the country are to have a contest, and the man in each district who sells the most units in one month is to have two weeks in Bermuda free, all expenses paid by the company.

Three days later the local salesman appears at my door, and, getting inside because of my weak nature, delivers his speech about the merits of the XYZ Refrigerator. Incidentally he carelessly lets drop the fact that if he sells four more units he will have two weeks in Bermuda at the expense of his company. I do not want an electric refrigerator, I do not care whether he ever goes to Bermuda or a place even warmer; I explain that I am trying to write an article for the Atlantic Monthly and will he please go away. He sits still and continues talking about safety points, food containers, winter refrigeration, and the multi-temperature features of the XYZ machine — none of which I can understand in the least. Finally, in desperation, I sign the papers. Another triumph for the competitive spirit.

Ten minutes afterward a second salesman comes to the door to inform me that he represents a new gas refrigerator. I explain, not without pleasure, that he is ten minutes too late. Very good, he says, unfolding some literature; he would like to interest me in a new oil burner which can — but I interrupt. I was interested (somewhat against my will) in an oil burner last winter. Has he, I ask, a secondhand tire to fit a 1928 Ford? Such is the nature of the genus salesman, and such is the competitive spirit, that my feeble attempt at irony goes unheeded and in his eye can be seen a reflective look as he endeavors to think quickly where he can get hold of a secondhand Ford tire and consummate that sale!

Ah yes, you will say, but this sort of thing is necessary. Without the competitive spirit, business would die, the race would disintegrate. No danger, because as a people we shall never lack the competitive spirit. It is part of our make-up, it is in the air we breathe from earliest childhood; temperamentally we are a competitive nation. Rather are we likely to suffer from an excess of the competitive spirit. Look around and you will notice that we are a country of men old and worn at forty, gray-haired, tired, exhausted, when we should be at our physical and mental best. Abroad there are fewer champions and record breakers, but there men work, enjoy life, and play until they are fifty, sixty, seventy; abroad they take things more casually, the competitive spirit in life and sport is not forever urging them on and on

and on until they are burned out. Here we have been brought up in the ‘ play hard’ idea, and as a consequence the land is filled with business men who work hard at their business and in their games, who take life terrifically hard and play in the same manner. Unfortunately they do not know anything else and most of them are too old to learn.

If keenness in business is what these men desire, they are defeating their own ends by carrying into athletics the same nervous-energy-consuming mental attitude that they use in their daily occupations. If they regarded games as a chance to renew themselves physically, they would not only extract real enjoyment from them, they would receive as well the natural and normal benefits of sport they now fail to obtain. Instead of burning up capital, they would be storing it up, were athletics considered as recreation. If games were treated as games and nothing more, they would be a means of restoring depleted brain cells instead of further depleting them. Old lost values would be recaptured.

The word ‘sport,’ as you know, comes from the word ‘disport,’ which in turn derives from the Old French word desporter, to carry away, or, originally, to carry away from work. ‘Sport’ — to carry away from work. Let’s try it sometime.