All the world is full of conflict. It is thus among nations and it is thus within each and every town. And it is thus in every household and it is thus between neighbors. —Reb Nachman of Bratslav
Most teen boys engage in multiple forms of competition. Not only the obvious competitions of sports, social standing, physical altercations, academic challenges, and video games, but the more obscure—they compete to see who can gross each other out in the cafeteria, who can yell “penis” the loudest in a public place, who can drink the most hot sauce, or who can come up with the best “your momma” joke. Ask them about the most ridiculous contest they have been in and you will hear some unexpected stories.
Some teen boys withdraw from social settings to avoid this type of competition. But most boys thrive from it. To explore this dynamic, we ask: What are the benefits and drawbacks of competition? How do we handle violence within competition? What is our attitude about “rules” and following them? When is it important to win? What happens when everything becomes a competition? And our ultimate question:
What are the tools that guys need to navigate the ethical and emotional challenges of a competitive world?
This session looks at these questions and brings in a Jewish lens for insight. Most of the discussion in Jewish sources on competition is about physical battle or competition between intellects, so we will add Jewish ideas on pride, humility, and dignity to get a fuller palette of the emotions that competition sparks.
- For guys to think critically about what it means to compete.
- For guys to have an opportunity to reflect on the rewards and benefits of the various competitions (academic, athletic, artistic, etc.) that they are currently pursuing.
- For guys to explore the interplay of Jewish values regarding pride, humility, and fairness.
- How can we find the balance in our own lives between being overly competitive and not caring at all.
The potential physical exercises that can be deployed for this session are numerous, and you might choose your favorite competition or even consider asking the guys to come up with a competition that they enjoy. That said, the exercises below are specifically geared to bring up core issues – physical strength and size, power, and psychological skill. We recommend beginning with the “grab bag” below, which is a fast and fun way to get at multiple modes of competition within the first section of the session.
#1 Grab-Bag Competition
- Place each competition challenge on a card so that it is randomly selected from a bag. (Objects needed: rope or string for limbo, and to set a line for jumping.)
- Appoint a judge; you can be the judge, or one of the teens can be a judge. This activity needs one judge who can make a quick ruling regarding the winner.
- Read the card and ask them all to compete. Just say: “Go!” Let them organize the competitions and watch their dynamics.
- Optional: Have a “pass” card. The pass card will allow everyone to pass on two competitions.
- Who can do the best moonwalk?
- Who can do the most one-handed pushups?
- Who can jump the farthest from a standing position?
- Who can stand up straight, bend their back forward, and touch the floor?
- Who can make the best fart noise with his armpit?
- Who can limbo the lowest?
- Who can say the Pledge of Allegiance the fastest?
- Who can solve this math problem the fastest: 8x 17? 3x 247?
- Who can take the following letters and make them into a word: W, E, R, S, E, V?
- Who can do the most pushups on their fists?
- Who can draw the most realistic picture of a horse in 30 seconds?
- Who can compose an original melody in 30 seconds?
- What were these competitions about?
- What were we proving?
- Who set the rules?
- Who was resistant?
- Why did you pass on the ones you passed on?
- Which one did you enjoy the most?
Slaps is a simple and fast-moving game in which two players place their hands together. Here are two videos that show different versions of the game:
- Have everyone pair off.
- Allow them to determine who the winner is after each 60-second round.
- The loser must cheer on the winner (this can be done either by making noise or by cheering with body movements alone) as the winner finds a new opponent.
- In the end, the two remaining winners are cheered on as they compete.
- What skill is being proven in this competition? Speed? Instinct?
- Was it hard to determine a winner?
- How did you decide?
- Did you feel like the people you played against were fair?
#3 Leg Wrestling
This is an option only if you trust your guys with a more physically challenging game. Leg wrestling is similar to arm wrestling in terms of mechanics. Two competitors lie down next to one another, heads on opposing sides. They lift the inner leg up three times and then try to lock it around the opponent’s leg to cause a flip. Since this game can be risky, remember to warn your guys that this is for fun and that they should make sure not to hurt their opponent!
This section focuses on defining competition, raising questions about the “everything is a competition” mentality that men are exposed to, and taking a closer look at the term, “male aggression.”
#1 Defining Competition in Our Lives
Say something like: “I am going to read a list of questions. I don’t need you to do anything but listen.”
What are you currently competing for?
- Getting good grades?
- Social status?
- Recognition as an artist?
- Recognition as an athlete?
- Friends’ time on weekends?
- Attention from someone in your school?
- Time or attention from a parent?
- Attention from a person you are attracted to?
We are going to look specifically at competition in different areas of life. In each bag (or manila envelope), I have set up different areas of life where competition happens. In one sentence or less, define a competition that happens in each area by writing it down on a note card and placing it in the bag.People compete by _____________________ OR People compete for _____________________
For example, “At Home” could be: “People compete for who gets to govern the remote control on the big TV.”
- At home
- In class
- At lunch
- In the hallway at school
- In the gym
- At big family events
- In synagogue
- On weekends
- Hanging out with other guys
Now let’s split into groups of two or three, look at what was written and comment on the patterns that we see. What is the most common competition in each setting?
#2 Questioning the “Everything is a Competition” Mentality
Have guys stand in two lines, facing each other in pairs (if you have an odd number, the group leader can team up with someone).
Say: “We are going to have five very quick debates. This side is going to argue why something that I will say can be ranked and the other side will argue why it cannot be ranked.”
- What can be ranked?
- Now we are going to switch sides and have five quick debates the other way around.
- What did you learn from that exercise?
- What was it like to argue that something could be ranked?
- What was it like to argue against it?
- Do you want to pick one of the categories and have a full debate?
Jewish Text Study on Ranking
Now Jacob loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors. (Genesis 37:3)
Then Joseph had another dream and told his brothers about it. “Listen to this dream,” he said. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down before me!” This time he told his father as well as his brothers, and his father rebuked him. “What do you mean?” his father asked. “Will your mother, your brothers, and I actually come and bow before you?” (Genesis 37:9-10)
“Here comes the dreamer!”the brothers proclaimed. “Let’s kill him, throw him into a pit, and claim that a wild beast killed him.” (Genesis 37:20)
Commentary: Resh Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah: A man must not discriminate among his children, for on account of the coat of many colors which our father Jacob made for Joseph, “They hated him…” (Midrash Rabbah)
Three questions to consider from these texts:
- From Jacob’s perspective: If a parent/teacher/coach actually does favor one child over another, should he or she let the child know?
- From Joseph’s perspective: If you know you are the best at something, should you let other people know it?
- From the brothers’ perspective: How might you deal with someone who is bragging about being the best at something?
The man considered the NBA’s best all-time player, Michael Jordan, once said: “There is no ‘I’ in team, but there is in win.”
- Was he right or wrong to say that?
In the Talmud, we read: A little praise of a man can be uttered in his presence, but complete praise in his presence is forbidden. (Erubin 18)
- Why would the rabbis make this rule?
#3 Gender and Competition
What messages do guys get in American society about competing?
Say: “I am going to call out ten things that guys hear about competition. Count on your fingers how many of them you have heard.”
- Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.
- It is only cheating if you get caught.
- He who dies with the most toys wins.
- Play to win or don’t play at all.
- Winners never quit.
- Take no prisoners.
- To win, you’ve got to want it more than anyone else.
- Winning is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.
- Offense wins games and defense wins championships.
- There are no sore winners, only sore losers.
- Who has heard more than three of these?
- Who has heard five or more?
- Seven or more?
- Who has heard all of them?
Here’s a classic video clip about the pressure on guys to “be winners”—Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club:
Here are two questions to consider silently: If men are being told all the time to be winners, then how does that affect us? What are the costs that we have to pay to be winners?
“I am going to ask a question that we are going to answer after watching a video clip: Do you think that our culture makes guys compete or do you think that guys are naturally competitive?”
The video clip is a UFC fight over-dubbed with an Richard Attenborough nature documentary. It is violent, as is typical for a UFC match, and the over-dub describes two male lions in the wild.
What is this clip saying about the Uber-male? What is this clip comparing men these men to? Is the clip speaking about all men? Do you think that males are “inherently” violent and competitive?
An alternative clip: Sapolsky studies of Baboons
Short video on study: (https://youtu.be/4Q-bB-qywJ0)
NYT article including short video:
Consider raising some alternative views with the guys:
- Studies have shown that in more patriarchal societies, men seek out competition more than women, and in more matriarchal societies, women seek out competition more than men. (To read the entire study, check out www.nber.org/papers/w13727).
- Here is a great quote from Apes and the Origins of Human Violence: “Chimpanzees and bonobos both evolved from the same ancestor that gave rise to humans, and yet the bonobo is one of the most peaceful, unaggressive species of mammals living on earth today.” (Richard Wangram and Dale Peterson, 1996)
- The authors argue that it is highly likely that the environmental conditions south of the Congo River (where vegetation was plentiful) led to a primate species (bonobos) where males are non-competitive and only mildly aggressive and the conditions north of the river led to a primate species (chimps) where males are highly competitive and aggressive. If human nature evolved based on environmental conditions five million years ago, could it evolve again? How so?
- In the Torah, in the Garden of Eden, Adam, the first man, does not see any need to compete. Food is provided for him and he has a companion. (In some commentaries, he has more than one companion.) We do not hear about competition between men until the story of Adam’s sons, Cain and Abel.
#4 Limits of Competition
How far is too far in competition? What are the limits?
Jewish Text Study on Men and Competition
Opening set-up: If Adam, the first man, was peaceful, then how did men learn to be in competition with each other? In the Torah, the brothers Cain and Abel offer different sacrifices to God. Cain offers vegetables, Abel, meat. God prefers Abel’s sacrifice. Then we read:
Have someone tell the story of Cain and Abel, you can pick two actors to act out the scene as its being told. Then read Genesis 4:8 act out the scene again- (Based on the scene and the text, What happened? Who is at fault? Why?)
Genesis 4:8: “And Cain spoke to Abel his brother… and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him” The midrash is as follows:
Now read read this midrash while the two actors continue to play out the roles (who is at fault, why?)
“And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother… What did they argue about? ‘Come,’ they said, ‘let us divide the world.’ One took the land and the other the movables. The former said, ‘The land you stand on is mine,’ while the latter retorted, ‘What you are wearing is mine.’ One said, ‘Strip,’ the other retorted, ‘Fly [off the ground].’ Out of this quarrel, Cain rose up against his brother Abel.” (Bereishit Rabbah 22:7)
Wrap up: “You might want to summarize the ideas in this section and come to some conclusions.”
For example: “I liked how we challenged the idea of competition,” or “From hearing your reactions, I sense that we are all competitive and there’s also a part of us that avoids competition.” You could also add: “I can’t really imagine a world without competition, but I like how you are thinking critically about guys and competition.”
#1 The Underdog
This clip from the original Karate Kid is the classic narrative of the noble underdog facing the heartless brute: (begin clip at 8:30).
Starting at 8:30 until 14:44 (end)
A few questions you might ask:
- What signals are there to let us know who is the “bad guy,” (i.e., he wears black, the coach is “angry,” the coach says, “finish him”)?
- What are the reasons for Danny to fight, even when he is injured?
- To win, Danny breaks the other guy’s nose. Was that a fair way to win?
As Jewish guys, the underdog narrative is a familiar one:
48 As the Philistine giant moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.
50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.
51 David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.
—(I Samuel, Chapter 17)
Do we, as Jewish guys, relate to these narratives of the weaker competing against the stronger?
A classic joke about Jews as the underdog:
At the Russian War College, the general is a guest lecturer and tells the class of officers that the session will focus on potential problems and the resulting strategies.
One of the officers in the class begins by asking the first question, “Will we have to fight a World War Three?”
“Yes, comrades, it looks like you will,” answers the general.
“And who will be our enemy, Comrade General?” another officer asks.
“The likelihood is that it will be China.”
The class looks alarmed, and finally one officer asks, “But Comrade General, we are 150 million people and they are about 1.5 billion. How can we possibly win?”
“Well,” replies the general, “think about it. In modern war, it is not the quantity, but the quality that is the key. For example, in the Middle East, 5 million Jews fight against 50 million Arabs, and the Jews have been the winners every time.”
“But sir,” asks the panicky officer, “do we have enough Jews?”
#2 The Ethics of Team Competition
Agree or Disagree —move to one side of the room if you agree, the other side if you disagree.
- Coaches should yell at players who are making mistakes.
- Players on the same team should not criticize each other during the game.
- There is no reason to trash talk a player on the other team.
- If you make an awesome play, you should be able to celebrate it with a fist pump or some other gesture.
- In basketball or soccer or hockey, if someone on your team is hogging the ball, you should try to keep it away from him.
- If a person isn’t competitive at the sport, then he shouldn’t be playing.
Jewish Text Study on Team Competition
Let’s take a look at this classic Jewish text in relationship to the issues we just discussed.
Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Pirke Avot 1:14)
- What are the implications related to teaching athletes on a team?
- Going back to Michael Jordan’s statement, “There is no ‘I’ in team, but there is in win.” Does his statement fit in or counter Hillel’s?
Here’s a classic Jewish joke about team competition:
A rabbi decided that having a rowing team would be good for the young men in his synagogue. He recruited members for the team and they bought a boat. But the first year, they lost all their races. Unable to fathom what happened, the rabbi assigned his assistant to find out what the best teams did. Some weeks later, the assistant spied on the other school.
“So what is the secret of their success?” the rabbi asked.
The assistant replied, “At the winning school, ten men row, and only one shouts out directions.”
#3 What Happens When Athletes Break the Rules?
Here’s a wacky clip in which Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan are in an arm wrestling match that breaks out into something more:
- Who breaks the rules in this video?
- What are the rules?
- Do the rules matter?
O.K.—now let’s look at a more serious clip, where rules really do matter.
This is a classic NBA clip about a game that gets out of hand. The clip, of a Lakers Rockets NBA playoff game in 2009, is chock-full of bad sportsmanship. It is an emotional game with a high level of enmity between the players:
As you watch, think: Are the referees doing a good job of controlling the game? Which players are breaking the rules? How could things have been handled differently by the coaches or players?
Ask the guys: “Have you ever been in a competitive situation when a team was breaking the rules? What did you do about it?
#4 Winning At All Costs
If your guys like to argue about sports, this is a great story about a Little League baseball controversy. It involves a nine-year-old boy with cancer. The second link raises questions about the coach’s decisions There’s no video on this, but it is a great story nonetheless.
Another sports related topic: steroids and performance enhancing drugs. See this trailer from the documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster”: (https://youtu.be/3KzGfuFFSxA)
(you can take this in a couple of different directions: 1. The issue of cheating 2. The issue of how far are you willing to go in order to win? The question in the trailer about would you take a drug with the known side effects if it would provide the known benefits, even if it was illegal/unethical/etc.?
#5 Celebrating or Bragging?
This video ranks the top ten touchdown celebrations of the NFL. Ask your guys which ones are appropriate celebrations and which ones go too far: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ln_ryO3DbkM. [“NFL – The Best Tou…” This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by NFL.]
Other Forms of Competition for Guys
While a great deal of “guy culture” is about sports, business competition is also a popular topic for young men. These films, both by Jewish writers, express the cut-throat competition of the business world:
- Boiler Room: Ben Affleck delivers a speech about being a “winner not a piker” (explicit): (https://youtu.be/2nPqJl8tWn0)
- Alec Baldwin, in a similar fashion, in Glen Gary Glen Ross by David Mamet (explicit): (https://youtu.be/wVQPY4LlbJ4)
What is the message in these clips about guys and what it takes for a guy to compete economically and be a winner? How do the “successful” guys look at the other guys? Do the films make you want to compete or do they make you want to avoid this kind of competition?
There is an excellent clip about the documentary film King of Kongs, about two grown-up men who compete with each other in Donkey Kong, located here: (https://youtu.be/xMJZ-_bJKdI)
It is a good clip to introduce the idea of e-gaming as an area of competition that guys enjoy and getting them to speak about the rewards and drawbacks of video game competition.
#1 Winning and Losing
(Before this section, think about telling a personal story—from your life or a friend’s life—about a time when you won and a time when you lost.)
Say something like:
We all have intense feelings tied up with winning and losing. We can all look back on times when we failed and times when we succeeded. We’re going to pair up and think a little more about those times.
Think about a story when it really mattered that you won, and you were able to win.
- Why did you want to win?
- Was someone motivating you to win? A parent? A coach? A teacher? A peer? Yourself?
- Did you feel like winning in one thing made you better able to win in other things?
Think about a story when you wanted to win something, but you didn’t.
- What do you do when you don’t win?
- Do you blame others? Blame yourself?
- What did you learn from losing?
#2 Choosing Your Competition
Read aloud these words from a former Jewish NFL star:
There are phenomenal athletes in the NFL—among the best athletes in the world. And what separates the great ones from the guys that are in the league one year and out the next is their work ethic. Guys who are willing to sacrifice time, and work hard, those are the guys that make it—the ones who are willing to do things over and above what the coaches ask you to do. More than anything, that’s the number one lesson I have taken from my time in the NFL. (Lennie Friedman, NFL Veteran, 2000-2008)
- What is the one area where you really want to push yourself?
- What is the one thing that you really want to compete in? It could be athletic, it could be to be a better writer, a better musician, a better chef.
- How are you going to improve in that one thing?
#3 Humility in Competition
One of the challenges of being competitive is learning how to handle success. Here’s a classic folktale about success:
Samuel, a young scholar, is told by the Elders that he has been ranked as the best student of his class. He is now ready to leave school and to become the rabbi of the small Polish town of Nikolsburg. A coachman will take him to the town and show him his new home. Then all the Jewish people of the town will throw him a welcome party.
Samuel is taken by the coachman to his new home in Nikolsburg. The scholar sits in front of the mirror in his new bedroom and says to his reflection: “I’d like to introduce you to the great Rabbi of Nikolsburg!”
The coachman is shocked: “Why did you say that, sir?”
The rabbi responded: “I want to say it to myself so that when other people say it to me, I will not think too highly of myself.”
Ask the guys: “Think about a time when you bragged about something. Why did you feel the need to brag about it? Do you know someone who is humble? Tell someone in the group about a person whom you know is humble and how you know that he or she is humble.”
You might want to end by saying something about how it is important to have times when you are not competing, and simply being. The song Hiney Mah Tov is about guys simply “sitting together” — end by getting in a circle — preferably standing up – and saying it or singing it with your group.
You might want to try to do a “strong circle” – to have the guys sit very close together and try to stand up all at once using the support of the circle.Hinei mah tov u’mah-nayim, shevet achim gam yachad. How good and how pleasant it is when brothers sit together.