Competing Against a Friend: Balancing Respect and Competition

Whether for a promotion or a gold medal, sometimes we must compete against friends. How do you keep mutual respect for each other while still respecting the competition?

In a previous story I wrote about how at the PanAms I competed (and lost) against a highly accomplished, highly experienced grappler, Hannette Staack. What I didn’t mention is that in addition to being the yardstick by which most of the rest of the female grappling population measure ourselves, I’m happy to be able to say Hannette is my friend (read this story about her appearance as a guest instructor at one of the Women’s Grappling Camps I co-lead with my friend and business partner Emily Kwok).

A few weeks before the tournament, when I realized we would be competing against each other (we were the only two in our division), I reached out to her to let her know; she had registered first, so I saw her name in the competitors’ list. I wasn’t sure about the protocol, but it felt right to say something ahead of time and reiterate how much I respect and like her, rather than running the risk of having her suddenly see my name in the division and possibly interpret that as me “gunning” for her. (Not that she’d have to worry even if I were!)

My experiences over the tournament weekend of going back and forth between viewing Hannette as my friend and my adversary got me thinking about the nature of competition, and how to navigate multilayered relationships with other grapplers in this still relatively small world. I had never competed against a friend before this; I have competed against people who have subsequently become friends, but never someone I am already in a friendship with. Acquaintances, maybe, but this felt different somehow. Perhaps this makes me an anomaly, especially at the black belt level, and especially as a woman, where the same relatively small number of people enters tournaments over and over and populates the same divisions. I suspect other competitors have competed against friends already.

But the point is, yet again, over PanAms weekend Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and one of the best at it in the world (and I don’t mean myself), helped me learn more about how to be a good sport and just a good person. Toward the beginning of the weekend, Hannette and her husband Andre greeted me with hugs and joking; I think I was the one who jokingly put up my dukes first, but she responded in kind. Probably not surprisingly, our interactions became shorter and a bit more subdued as the day and time of the match neared. But I always felt from Hannette – and hope I always demonstrated to her – respect and affection, even if there might have been a bit of awkwardness too.

The match itself was a real education for me technically and strategically, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to experience it. And it was fun to get to chat with Hannette again after the anticipation had dissipated. What I didn’t expect was for Andre, who is also Hannette’s coach, to give me a big hug afterward and to thank ME for the opportunity for Hannette to compete against me.

But all of it is consistent, it seems, with what I would consider to be the actions and mindset of the ideal sportsman (or woman): Act with respect, both for yourself and the other person, treat every match seriously, give it your all, and then leave it behind. When I emailed Hannette about competing against her, she wrote back that friendship is friendship and competing is competing, implying the two are different – and they can exist side by side.

It’s possible I’ll have the opportunity to compete against Hannette again. If and when that time comes, I’ll do my best to treat the situation in a way that reflects both my desire to do well in competition and my respect and affection for my friend. And meanwhile, I owe her an acai!

If you compete, or if you’ve been in a similar situation in another domain, perhaps competing with a friend or colleague for a promotion, share your comments below. How do you navigate the multiple layers of your relationships?