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Play the Game

www.hr.economictimes.indiatimes.com | November 7, 2021
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‘Play the game’ means doing our best, abiding by the rules, and displaying fairness, honour, and integrity in any activity. It does not mean an absence of desire to win, but the focus is on the present and not the future.

As India celebrates its recent achievements at the Tokyo Olympics, we recall an inspiring example of sportsmanship at the Rio Olympics. Nikki Hamblin, an athlete from New Zealand, and Abbey D’Agostino, her rival from the USA, collided more than halfway through the 5,000-metre race, bringing both runners down. D’Agostino could be seen encouraging Hamblin to get back up, but it turned out D’Agostino was hurt. Together, they managed to essentially carry each other to the finish. While they missed their chance to be at the podium, both athletes were honoured with the Pierre de Coubertin medal for displaying an extraordinary act of sportsmanship.

Pierre de Coubertin was the founder of the modern Olympic Games who famously said, “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. Just as in life, what counts is not the victory but the struggle; the essential thing is not to conquer but to fight well.”

In a different sporting event in the sixties, during an India-West Indies cricket test match at the Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai, Budhi Kunderan, India’s wicketkeeper, was declared out by the umpire and started walking back to the pavilion. The West Indies captain, Gary Sobers, signalled to the umpire that he had taken the catch off a bounce, and Kunderan returned to the crease. Such acts of sportsmanship are unfortunately rare these days, not just in sports but also in the workplace, because we have become hyper-competitive and primarily operate from a ‘play to win’ mindset instead of simply ‘playing the game.’

The expression ‘play the game’ most likely crept into popular parlance after the English poet Henry Newbolt wrote the classic poem Vitai Lampada in 1892. In the poem, Newbolt uses the expression several times to exalt the virtues of fairness, courage, and duty. He portrays a schoolboy who later serves his country as a soldier, learning selfless commitment to duty in cricket matches. “Play up! Play up! Play the game” immortalized Newbolt in the hearts of his countrymen. These words became a call to them to defend their country in its hour of need. Although written during the peak of the British Raj in India, it is not known if the Bhagavad Gita influenced the poet. However, American author Steven Pressfield’s 1995 novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance (as well as the film based on this novel) were based on the Bhagavad Gita as acknowledged by the author. The plot guides a golf player to ‘play the game’ with a detached focus for the outcome.

Today, decades after Newbolt and Pressfield’s works were published, we need to ask ourselves the question - Should we ‘play the game’ or play to win? Arguably, most people prefer to ‘play to win’ rather than ‘play the game.’ However, we remain firm believers in the latter and intend to make a case for it.

‘Play the game’ means doing our best, abiding by the rules, and displaying fairness, honour, and integrity in any activity. It does not mean an absence of desire to win, but the focus is on the present and not the future. It is about enjoying the journey and making every moment count, rather than worrying about reaching the destination.

When we ‘play to win,’ our focus is on the future, and achieving goals or winning tends to become the sole objective, putting the individual or team under undue pressure. If the stakes are high for instance, when playing for a big league or big money, or leading a big project—the pressure can be intense and adversely impact performance.

However, while ‘playing the game,’ one can commit to bravely meeting goals by doing the best without undue pressure. ‘Playing to win’ can often become an obsession, leading one to violate rules or resort to unfair means. Sledging and match-fixing in cricket, ranting at umpires in tennis, and dressing up financial statements to satisfy shareholders in corporate organisations are cases in point. We are also more prone to burnout when we ‘play to win’ rather than ‘play the game.’

Although everybody wants to win these days, the probability of winning is never more than 50 per cent. It can reduce to a fraction when the competition is severe, like in the ‘Joint Entrance Examination’ for admission into the IITs. In such cases, a ‘play to win’ mindset can become a recipe for frustration. Small wonder that we see many people behaving as if their world has ended or even committing suicide after a loss or failure.

We see this even in competitive sports, where players on a losing side tend to display unprofessional behaviour on the field. Sadly, even spectators want their favourite teams to win every time. Their behaviour tends to be even more appalling, as displayed at the recent Euro 2020 soccer final between Italy and England at Wembley.

The benefits of loss or failure have been underestimated. Failure is not the end; it is an opportunity to learn. A wealth of insights and lessons can be gleaned from analysing loss or failure. This may not only make us wiser but also more determined in the future.

History is replete with many stories. In the 14th century, King of Scots, Robert the Bruce, lost many battles with the English forces before returning with more grit and determination to defeat them. Thomas Alva Edison failed hundreds of times before he invented the electric bulb. There are many cases where loss or failure has inspired people to accomplish things they would not have achieved, probably if things had gone well.

We strongly advocate that you ‘play the game’ – do your best, abide by the rules, and enjoy the game without worrying about the outcome. We win even in defeat when we ‘play the game, and sportsmanship will always triumph over one-upmanship in the long-run. Thousands of years ago, Lord Krishna counselled Arjuna by saying, “You have the right to work only, but never to its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.”

Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि॥

(Bhagavad Gita, chapter 2, verse 47)

The authors Lancelot Cutinha is Senior Director - Human Resources at FLAME University, and Pankaj Jain is a Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at FLAME University. Views expressed in this article are personal.

(Source: https://hr.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/trends/leadership/play-the-game/87569910)