Sports, Competition Offer Insight Into American Student Culture

American notions of competition on and off the athletic field may surprise some international students.

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Competition and team loyalty can be intense in the U.S., so be prepared.
Competition and team loyalty can be intense in the U.S., so be prepared.

When I moved to the U.S., I had prepared myself well.

I knew traffic moved on the right side of the road, and that I wouldn't be able to shop for my favorite brands of food or clothing. I was aware of the patriotism motivating memorials and holidays, and also that the currency differed in value and appearance from what I was used to. 

One thing that I didn't consider was the impact competition could have on my prospective friendships. 

Coming from a country where teamwork and competition complement each other, I had no idea that they operated as opposites in the U.S. I first saw it when I played intramural sports on campus my first semester as an international student

Our all-female flag football team was fierce. Tryouts, practices and games were all focused on making us a cohesive, competent, competitive unit. 

We only succeeded through another's defeat, a zero-sum "I win, so you must lose" philosophy found on the field and often in life. Playing against rivals was encouraged while encouraging rivals was not fair play. 

[Get a boost from extracurriculars at a U.S. college.] 

One time after I knocked down a girl wearing the opposing jersey, I offered my hand to help her up, which was fine and deemed sportsmanlike, and then started joking with her about her moves. 

She looked at me as though I were crazy, shook off my arm and ran back to her bench. I thought about the interaction, and realized it offered insights into culture and competition in the States. 

The first lesson was about how students' perspective of competition differed from what I had known at home. In a school scenario, students compete for grades, scholarships, placements and more. 

At schools in the U.S., this competitiveness is highlighted by the abundance of talent. Where I might have been the best back home, my exposure to U.S. platforms informed me of my shortcomings. 

Having come to the States a recognized athlete, it was difficult for me to adjust my attitude and see that my ability was no longer at the top of the scale. 

From our first day of practice, the ladies' football team created the lineup of first-string and second-string players. But this division was based on the commitment of the players, not necessarily their strength. In order to succeed in the States, it takes more than skill. 

[Learn how international students can participate in class.] 

The second lesson I learned was one about loyalty. A person can't have divided attentions or even a ranked list of liked teams. Sports fans in the U.S. latch onto a brand for life. 

The location of my school is nearly midway between Chicago and Detroit, and with so many students from across the U.S. and world, major-league sporting events become a matter of metaphoric life and death. 

The team you support will determine who talks to you on game day. It's also true of playing competitively with other teams and schools: yours is the best, the one and only, end of story. 

The third lesson gleaned from the game was one of responsibility. While games may get a little rough, there is a paradoxical reaction revealing that attitudes on the field don't really reflect the feelings of the players. 

[Don't be surprised to hear these questions from U.S. students.] 

After badly losing in an intramural game, I was surprised to learn that my teammates and I were sharing pizza with the other players. Our intense game of intimidation ended with the last whistle, and we could go on with our lives finding common ground in other arenas. 

My experience with previous contests had been focused on promoting individuals for what they could bring to the playing field, but here the stakes are high and favorable to those who can excel as part of a team. 

Being an athlete in the U.S. gave me an insider's view of the intense culture of competition that underscores a student's approach to opportunities both in and out of the game. 

Katelyn Ruiz, from Canada, is pursuing an interdisciplinary master's degree in communication and English from Andrews University.