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When my cross country coach said we are competing against ourselves

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Some of my high school cross country running teammates seemed to grumble when our coach told us that part of our work was competing against ourselves, as if he did not expect us to win many races. We had some very capable runners, and I improved tremendously from a novice to sprinting up a one-mile hill and running for miles and miles in practice, but I still usually came in as one of the last runners in a race, and our team was in the bottom half of teams competing in 1977 in the Fairfield County Intermural Athletic Conference. That meant we had strong competitors on numerous other teams.

Two years later, after I stopped running with the team, a new coach took over, seemed to have more of a winning attitude, and led a team that got better results in races.

The right coach would have integrated both approaches, both to focus and prepare at all times for winning, and also to compete against ourselves to keep improving in order to increase our prospects at winning. That is the non-dualistic approach that recognizes that competition is about winning in a world where we are in one way or another connected to everyone and everything. In that regard, none other than television’s Kung Fu imparted this lesson, through Master Kan: “Perceive the way of nature and no force of man can harm you. Do not meet a wave head on: avoid it. You do not have to stop force: it is easier to redirect it. Learn more ways to preserve rather than destroy. Avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill. For all life is precious nor can any be replaced.” (Emphasis added.)

For me as a trial lawyer and person, I need constantly to compete against myself while keeping the eye on the winning prize. The losing party in court is simply the losing party in terms of any benefits received or not, unless the losing party wins the next time in a reconsideration proceeding, appeal, or the next battle.

Outside of the athletic field and school, all competitions are fraught with unevenness and even downright unfairness. In war, for instance, one side always outguns the other. And the outgunned side does not always lose, as we saw in the big muddy of the Vietnam war, where the more heavily armed — to the point of bogging down — United States military finally ended its involvement in the war with nothing to show for it other than massive deaths and injuries on both sides of the war and in Cambodia and Laos as well. In court, one side always has more beneficial resources than the other, but a capable and prepared criminal defense lawyer still can beat a prosecutor who has superior information (as a result of Virginia’s unfair discovery rules) and better witnesses.

I used to think how unfair it was that the vast percentage of most law school grades was based on just one three-hour classroom final exam. Imagine the pressure of doing four or five three-hour final exams in a week and being under the weather. However, that is good preparation for trial battle, needing always to be battle-ready and healthy as an ox. I have never needed to come close to ask to change a court date due to sickness, because I have concluded that I have no choice to be sick, and maintain my health accordingly.

For me, my cross country coach was good, because he gave me the opportunity and encouragement to exceed my expectations of what I could do in races and in daily long distance running practice; his “compete against yourselves” message put no damper at all on my drive to win, but instead, on that team I further internalized a winning attitude and approach that has served me well for all competition, including as a lawyer.