My competitive deficit disorder

Sam Smith – Some of my worst childhood moments were on the middle school playground of my Philadelphia public school. My parents had no interest in sports and no interest in how their children performed in them. There were few kids in the neighborhood to teach me. Thus unschooled, I would inevitably find myself last picked for the team and dispatched far into the concrete right field to await the terror of attempting to catch a high fly with bare, bumbling hands. As I stood there, I would weigh the relative merits of failing in my assignment or sustaining comparable opprobrium by trapping the ball and then being unable to throw it precisely to the infield. It was no small matter. As Jules Pfeiffer once said, if you can’t play baseball you can’t make it as a boy. Spherical dyslexia remained with me throughout life and, like Robert Morley, I can say that I have never willingly chased a ball.

My non-athleticism led me to fail to note that I was the largest boy in my  class. I illogically assumed that every other boy, should he be so inclined, could beat me up. In fact, I was rarely in fights, with the exception of once being approached by several youths, one of whom put a knife to my throat. The cause for this assault is no longer in my memory, but in any case the goal was apparently merely terror and not harm.

I moved on to a Quaker run high school. The school, while de-emphasizing competition among its students, was remarkably competitive in one sport: soccer. It had enjoyed 40 winning seasons in what was then one of the few cities in America in which soccer was taken seriously back then. At Germantown Friends School it was the major sport. I  attempted to be as inconspicuous as possible, which, as a fullback, was not that difficult since the ball was so frequently at the other end of the field. But by senior year I had been relegated to goalie for the junior varsity, the only senior on that team.

The closest I came to physical achievement was in the spring as a middling shot-putter. I was not bad at pure force; it was only when the force required some finite direction and distance that I failed. In winter the choice was basketball, wrestling or “physical education.” At 180-pouinds, I might have been trained into a decent wrestler but by that time the athletic triage that occurs in schools had already completed its course and I was assigned to perform unconvincing simulations of activity along with the other physiological dyslectics in the school.

When I got to Harvard College, things did not improve. By the middle of my sophomore year I was up to 230 pounds — fully fifty over what I had weighed at graduation and not a gram of it formed by anything remotely resembling exercise. My roommates designated me Fat Jolly Sam. Eventually, I would cut back on the visits to Elsie’s cafe, switch from beer to whiskey, start lifting weights regularly at the Harvard gym, and arrive at graduation only ten pounds heavier than when I left GFS.

I had also engaged in the one sport which I was good at: sailing and I was on the Harvard varsity sailing team. But the only race I remember was at Tufts. I couldn’t find a crew so I got a friend at Radcliffe to join me. The problem was that I came in first and the guy behind me filed a complaint because I had used a woman as a crew. This being the 1950s, there was a formal hearing of the New England intercollegiate sailing association and I had my first place taken away from me.

I would continue pumping iron and jogging into my seventies. I even launched a fitness program for male staffers in a Coast Guard District headquarters where I was serving,  but I hardly ever played cards, a game of chess, or any activity involving a ball. I had what I eventually recognized as a severe case of competition deficit disorder. How many others share this with me I have no idea, because it is not something you’re meant to talk about.

One of the ways that I filled the time that others used for sports was playing in jazz bands for forty years. Jazz bands are communities in which you learn to cooperate rather than compete with others. It turned out to be wonderful alternative for someone of my nature. I learned that you don’t have to defeat someone to have a good time.