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In games, as in life, why settle for losing?

As one of those accursed people who has often been accused of being too competitive by people who say with some inexplicable pride that they just play for fun, the Olympics are a vindication.

For a couple of weeks, we don't have to feel guilty about cheering for winners. The Olympics make winning a virtue.

For a few days every four years, we say it's okay _ even for little girls _ to be too competitive. The games say competition is good.

But in a few days, those of us who like to compete and _ perish the thought _ win, will be spoilers again, taking the fun out of everything from parlor games to outdoor sports for people who don't care if they win or lose.

Once again, it will not be okay for those of us who are not world-class athletes to take our competition seriously. It will no longer be okay for us to really try to win.

It is okay for world-class athletes to be focused. It is okay if you are among the best in the world to strive for perfection. It is okay to take what you're doing seriously if a particle of a second or a hair of distance can mean going on to make millions hawking tennis shoes and soft drinks, or going home to sell used cars and health insurance.

For world-class athletes, being too competitive can put that precious gold medal around your neck.

But does it do anything for the rest of us _ other than make it hard to find spades partners, or someone willing to play more than one or two friendly games of pool?

Do we get anything for our efforts except the limited satisfaction of a few shallow victories?

Yes, we do. The games we play are training grounds for the lives we live. We can shoot for the perfection we know we'll never achieve, or we can just give it an unprepared shot and try to laugh off our procession of losses.

Consider this: A psychologist at the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center told me that most of the young criminals there have never won anything. They have never known what it feels like to be winners, and consequently have no motivation to win.

Many have accepted losing as their natural condition. For them, much more is at stake than a card game or even a gold medal. Their lives are on the line and so are ours.

They have no concept of excellence _ the thing that competition tests _ or where to begin a search for it.

Now stand them next to Brooke Bennett and weigh the differences. The 16-year-old gold medalist spent hours at her Brandon Swim & Tennis Club, working to earn her victory.

Most of the young people at JDC tried short cuts. They tried the Olympic equivalent of skipping the competition and running past the victory platform and snatching their medal.

Bennett spent tedious hours getting the components right, knowing that when everything had been meticulously put in place, victory would come.

The JDC residents spent a few minutes getting everything wrong and jumping willy-nilly into the game, fairly assured of losing.

This, of course, is a comparison of extremes. Few of us have the dedication, determination and persistence of an Olympic athlete, or the talent to turn those qualities into world class performances.

But we should try. Not for gold medals, but for goals.

That means we can't allow ourselves to become complacent about defeats. The easier it becomes to accept defeat, the harder it becomes to do the work necessary to avoid it.

It is better to run the risk of becoming one of those dreaded too-competitive people. Learn to appreciate the nuances, the attention to little details, that make you a better player in any of the games of your life.

That's what competition is all about. That's what winning is all about.

And not just every four years.

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