I can’t believe it’s taken me over four years to write this piece. Why? Because competition has been central in my life from day one.

As far back as I can remember, I have been a competitive little bugger. I have a clear recollection of playing kickball in first grade and wanting so badly to kick a home run every time I got up to the plate.

Then when I was ten or so ping-pong was the big thing and I had to kick my friends’ butts every time. Ditto playing one-on-one in basketball and football in the street.

In high school and college it was about being a fierce competitor on the tennis court. Adulthood followed where competition was about, among other things, tennis, golf, mini-golf and playing Jeopardy and Scrabble against my wife; not-to-mention duking it out professionally in the ultra-competitive worlds of Washington, D.C. politics and the Hollywood writing scene.

The issue isn’t clear cut

So here’s where I come down on the subject of competition and spirituality. Not surprisingly, it’s complicated.

First, let’s define competition. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call it any endeavor where we are pitted against one or more persons.

Classic examples would be two boxers duking it out for the heavyweight championship, two tennis players running each other ragged at the French Open and two candidates running against each other to be president of the United States.

Pure competition is where it’s at

My take is that pure competition is fantastic, exhilarating and, yes, spiritual. My definition of pure competition is when someone does everything in their power to get the most out of themselves…in the boxing ring, the tennis court, the office or the campaign trail.

As someone who has played the sport since I was five, I’ll describe what that means for a tennis player. Competing at one’s highest level means working out hard, not just on the court but in the weight room and the track as well. It also involves eating healthy and doing things like meditation to help calm your nerves when you’re in the thick of battle.

During matches, you need to play hard and concentrate on every point. And if a match goes three hours in the searing heat, you need to dig deep, stave off the pain and muster every last drop of energy in your being. All in the service of winning the match.

Competing the right way is invigorating

That is pure competition. It’s getting the absolute most out of yourself in whatever competition you’re in. I’ve done this many times and it feels gratifying and invigorating.

But here’s the problem. Most people, myself included, allow pure competition to cross over into unhealthy areas.

Like what? Staying with tennis, let’s say I’ve done all the training and playing matches for many years. And I’ve won a lot. And many people now know me as a successful tennis player. And I took that praise and allowed it to buttress my feelings of self-worth.

So now when I get into a competitive tennis match, it’s no longer simply about the pure competition of getting the most out of myself. A huge part of my being is invested in winning, because if I lose, I’m now David Gerken the tennis loser.

And what does that lead people to do? They smash their rackets to smithereens if they lose a big point, yell and scream on the court and feel sick to their stomach the day of the match.

Allowing competition to become personal

Competition can also veer into the personal. It becomes more about “I just beat you so I’m better than you,” than extracting the very best from yourself.

None of this is healthy, and I mean mostly for the winner. It’s no coincidence that some of the most successful and competitive people in sports are also miserable people.

I think of Jimmy Connors who had a “Me against the world” mentality. Much as I love them, I’d put Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods in this category as well. They were extraordinary athletes with a competitive side that more than borders on the vicious.

Not all of the greats have been like that. Those who I see more as pure competitors who mostly just went out and tried to get the best out of themselves would be people like tennis players Chris Evert, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

The ego is the culprit, yet again

What entity plays the central role in pulling us from pure competition to the uglier sides of competing? It’s our usual culprit: The ego.

It was my ego that built up this false sense of myself as a “winner,” whether on the tennis court or other activities I’ve competed well in. And it’s my ego that desperately wants and needs that “winner” thing to keep on going.

I’ve written before about my inexplicable (and embarrassing) nervousness I get before playing in senior tennis tournaments. I know. It’s crazy. But it happens because of this “tough competitor” moniker I fought so hard to attain and that resulted in people admiring me. My fragile ego is terrified of what people may think if I started losing that competitive edge.

I have started losing much more in recent years and I think it’s because of all this spiritual work I’ve done (the fact that I’ve gotten older hasn’t helped!). I’ve been working hard on letting go of my egoic baggage and the more I let go of, the more I get out on the court and I simply don’t care as much as I used to.

I’m happier the more I lose

And by the way, I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s a sign of progress that I’m less and less a vicious tiger when competing. I’m definitely a happier camper being this way.

Which gets to the heart of the matter. I feel like being a vicious competitor who prides himself on vanquishing every foe, as I did for so many years, is antithetical to spiritual growth.

And the reason is that the ego is the entity providing the fuel for that competitive fire. Needless to say, feeding the ego is counterproductive to spiritual growth.

The takeaway

What does this mean for you? Next time you find yourself in a competitive situation, consider surveying your inner landscape. See what you find.

Hopefully, you’ll find that you’re just trying to do your best. End of story.

If not, are you trying to win to bolster your sense of self? Or to make yourself feel superior to your opponent? Do you have feelings of fear that your opponent will think you dumb, inferior or somehow “less than” if you lose badly?

The key at first, as always, is to simply become aware of what’s going on inside. Try to watch from a disinterested position.

If you are experiencing any of the above, consider doing what I’ve been doing: Let go of that egoic baggage.

Treat competition as just another opportunity to let go.