The Rav Zusya Principle: Maximizing Potential

By Rabbi James Gordon


Sports are all about competition; mainly competition against opponents (individuals and teams) for victory, as well as competition against potential teammates for limited spots on the squad and playing time.  For many, the fiercer the competition, the greater challenge there is to act in a sportsmanlike manner.

When it comes to learning life lessons – especially in youth sports – the most valuable competition is when a participant competes against oneself or, more specifically, against one’s potential.  

Carmen Salvino:  The Best Never Let it Rest

“Good, better, best, never let it rest, until the good is better and the better is best.”  This adage reminds us that it is vital that a person tries to do their very best in every endeavor that s/he undertakes.

For a team or individual to be credited with a victory, all they have to do is amass a better – usually higher – score.  Credit is not given for effort. However, in terms of learning rich life lessons, the greatest victory is achieved when an individual tries his or her hardest to reach their greatest potential.  Sometimes people who try their best defeat their opponents, while other times they do not.

The sports that best prepare us for the “game of life” are ones in which we can go out each and every time and try to compete for our own “PR”, or personal record.  

In this regard, my favorite organized youth sport is cross country running.  Traditionally, it is a “no-cut” sport – at least, for many schools, through the high school level. While the objective is to finish with fewer total points, ultimately each team’s score is comprised of the sum total of the top five individual runners’ times.  Every time a runner competes, s/he begins the race aware of their PR in that particular event and tries to beat it. Regardless of the outcome of the meet, every team member is able to evaluate their own progress and contribution to their team’s standing. In that way, cross country is probably the purest team endeavor in terms of competition and has the greatest potential to demonstrate the highest consistent level of sportsmanship.  (Ironically, it is also a sport in which a parent cannot complain about their child’s “playing time.” After all, the less talented the runner, the more playing time s/he gets [i.e., it takes longer to finish a particular event].)

Some other sports in which the player competes against their PR every time they participate include other track and field events, swimming, skating (figure and speed), golf, and bowling.

One of the all-time greats in the sport of bowling is Carmen Salvino.  Smitten by the bowling bug at the age of 12 when he worked at a Chicago bowling center as a pin-setter, young Carmen constantly worked to perfect his game so that he could be the best that he could be.  When he was 17, he became the youngest bowler to compete in the Chicago Classic League; appropriately he earned the nickname “Chicago’s Boy Wonder.” In 1958, Salvino was one of the founders of the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA).  With the birth of the PBA, bowling took off and became a very popular professional and amateur/recreational sport in the United States. In the 1960s, Salvino won an amazing ten PBA tournaments and traveled the world competing and as an ambassador of the sport.  

As he got older and began to realize that his game was beginning to slip, Carmen Salvino sought the counsel of an unlikely person: rather than a professional bowling mentor, he asked for the advice of a friend, Hank Lahr, an engineer who also happened to be a very good bowler.  Lahr helped Salvino see the game through the eyes of an engineer/scientist and taught him all about such topics as translational motion, rotational vectors, and friction. This tutelage helped Salvino realize that he needed to make adjustments to his game, which he did, thus prolonging his career.  It also inspired Carmen to expand his involvement in the sport of bowling to include the development of new bowling equipment.

Even when competing in “PR sports,” such as bowling, which depends ultimately on achieving your best score and hoping that it is the highest among all competitors for that match, sportsmanship comes into play. The temptation of winning at all costs has sometimes led athletes in various sports to use anabolic steroids and other prohibited performance-enhancing drugs to boost their physical abilities. And there are other examples, such as in baseball, some pitchers have applied foreign substances to the balls to make it harder for a batter to connect, and in some other cases, professional hitters have tried to sneak cork into their bats for more pop.

Yet Carmen Salvino is an exemplar of an athlete who acts in an honest, sportsmanlike manner when looking to prolong his career and better his game.  By his own admission, over time he also mellowed, and became an even more likable opponent and teammate. Mr. Salvino is a marvelous role model for the adage:  “Good, better, best, never let it rest, until the good is better and the better is best.”

Maximizing Potential: A Spiritual Insight

“Why weren’t you like Zusya?”

A story that illustrates this category of competition is an account told about a Chasidic leader by the name of Rabbi Zusya of Hanipoli, who lived in the 1700s.

When Rav Zusya was in the end stages of his life, the venerable Sage became very introspective about his mortality.  One day, noticing that he was unusually despondent, his students tried reassuring their beloved Rebbe that he had earned a secure place in the World to Come (Olam HaBa).

Rebbe, you shouldn’t be concerned,” his students told him.  “After all, you have the patience of Hillel, the wisdom of King Solomon, the kindness of Abraham, and the humility of Moses.”

Rabbi Zusya replied, “I am not worried about how I will respond when confronted by the angels of the Almighty and asked, ‘Why weren’t you like Hillel? Why weren’t you like King Solomon, Abraham or Moses?’ But, I am concerned as to how I will respond when asked the ultimate question:  ‘Why weren’t you like Zusya?’”

Why weren’t you like (fill in your own name)?

This is the main question that a person must consider whenever they take upon themselves any challenge in life.  So long as a person is honest and tries their hardest, that person will always be a winner.

Trying one’s hardest – what I refer to as “The Rav Zusya Principle” – and then accepting the results is the ultimate form of sportsmanship towards oneself.  After all, what better way is there to show oneself self-respect and honor?


From bowling legend Carmen Salvino we are inspired to “never let it rest until the good is better and the better is best.”

From Rabbi Zusya of Hanipoli we are taught that the only person against whom we should compete is ourselves (i.e., our own potential).  This is especially true with our own midot (character traits).