The beginning of this can be found here.
Since posting the first section of this, there have been several conversations at Flock Hall about it that have made it clear to me that some clarification is needed. Because competition is such an intensely emotional topic for some people, the conversations mostly concerned sportsmanship - which is only tangentially related to the subject at hand in that first post. The meat of that section speaks to making the game a proper (i.e. valid) test. It addresses adherence to the rules and putting forth your very best effort in order to get as close as possible to a result that is not skewed.
Sportsmanship, as we usually use the term, is more about behavior that is not regulated by the rules of the game (although lately, there has been an increasing need to address behavior that takes place in and around the game but is not actually part of the game proper, as well as during training - I'll address that in a future post). It mostly involves controlling one's emotions, be they positive or negative - no undue celebrating when you score, no tantrums when you fail, no "talking smack," etc. It is the behavior that makes you a pleasant opponent, win or lose, but it is not, strictly speaking, part of the game. It is culturally dictated, and thus varies from group to group.
An excellent example can be found in Kendo and Iiado. In both of these Japanese sword arts, you are supposed to treat your sword (boken, shinai, iiato, etc.) as though it were a person. While there are no formal rules about this and you will not be penalized in a tournament setting for violating these dictates, you are not to drop it on the floor, or step over it, or toss it in your trunk. Contrast this with the way Western fencers treat their equipment. It is fine to step over a sword that's been dropped or left on the ground, and they are afforded no special care when loading the car, except that which will keep them relatively straight and unbroken.
An example from our own not-so-wide world of sports is the treatment of badminton shuttles. None of the Asian players in our club have ever said anything about it, but I have discovered by reading on the 'net that kicking a shuttle - for example, kicking it under the net to your opponent so they can serve - is considered quite rude in many badminton communitites, but I see American players do it all the time. My point here is that what is anathema to one player is fine for others, and sportsmanship is like that across the board. During most games here in America we expect politeness, a handshake after the game, appropriate congratulations and encouragement, but that is certainly not the case in all settings. There seems to be no constant of behavior.
Having said that, I will put forth what I think is the constant in attitude about sportsmanship - treating each opponent as a full and worthy adversary. By this, I mean taking their chances of winning seriously, and doing your best to prevent that. You can be polite, cogratulatory, and even encouraging to your opponents, and still play your absolute hardest. In fact, you must play your very best at all times if you are to afford them the respect they deserve... which brings us to the original topic of today's post - different levels of competitors.
Despite the need to play your very best at all times, there are ways that elite players and those who are less skilled can still play a game that is rewarding for both. One way to make that possible is to handicap the more advanced player. In chess, this is called "knight's odds" - the more powerful player gives up one or sometimes even both knights at the beginning of the game. It's common in drag racing, too. A top fuel dragster might race against a modified stock car, with the modder getting the green light a second or two earlier than the dragster.
This kind of adjustment is possible in our games as well. For example, in the SCA we used to even things up a bit by fighting newcomers with a smaller shield, or putting the weapon in the offhand. In Taekwondo we would limit the more advanced fighter to a single technique - for example, the only way for the blackbelt to score is with a side kick, while the less experienced fighter can throw any technique they wish. In handball, I will sometimes serve with my offhand, or only allow myself to hit offhand kill shots.
This type of handicapping serves both competitors. The less skilled competitor learns more by playing against a better opponent, while the more experienced player enjoys a greater degree of difficulty than he would experience if he faced the less skilled player normally. He is also forced to use specific skills that he might need to work on. In badminton, for example, I try to work on control when playing a less experienced opponent. I try to win points on drop shots (as opposed to my more common kill shot, the smash). I know that the more advanced players try to work on certain types of shots when they play me - one guy likes to work on his edge game against me, so all of his kill shots are aimed at the back and side lines.
The point of this sort of self-limiting is to give the less experienced player a chance of winning, but also to help keep the game a valid test for both players. The more experienced player still has to play to the best of his ability - he is simply playing within a more strict set of rules than his opponent. In most games, it can be done without much fanfare, which protects the feelings of the less experienced player. It allows players of varied levels to play together, and it does so without belittling either.
Next installment: personal betterment.
The beginning of this can be found here.