Keeping Competition Healthy

Competition pervades our daily lives. We vie for employment, cheer on our kids in the spelling bee, and even try to beat out others for the best concert tickets.

Competition pervades our daily lives. We vie for employment, cheer on our kids in the spelling bee, even try to beat out others for the best concert tickets by setting up camp outside the box office, calling and calling again, or reloading our web pages as often as is necessary. We entice potential paramours to pay attention to us rather than anyone else at the party, eat more pie than anyone else at the county fair, arm wrestle like we are Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top. Add in the fact that we can compete against ourselves, where in a given situation we try to outdo our previous accomplishments, and it’s clear that the typical person is faced each day with countless opportunities to try to best another person. Winning brings with it bragging rights and increased social status and self-esteem. In addition, for our prehistoric ancestors, winning might have meant the difference between life and death. Thus, the desire to win taps into our most primal survival instincts, and as such, it has the potential to bring out the best or the worst in us.

Competition is obviously inherent in athletic endeavors as well, to a rarefied degree for hard-core athletes who participate in high-powered events like the CrossFit Games, professional team sports, and the Olympics. These athletes eat, sleep, and breathe strategies for achieving the edge over opponents that will garner them the victory, as their performance is what sustains their livelihoods—and probably those of multiple other people. They consult specialists and experts to help them dial in their nutrition, get their mental game in order, and train with effective intensity, focus, and periodization so that they peak just at competition time. Indeed, professional athletics comprises multiple billion-dollar industries dedicated to the science of competition.

But even those of us who will never participate professionally experience the benefits of athletic competition in various ways. For instance, casting our lot with our favorite sports team connects us to other fans and gives us a sense of identity, not to mention the excuse to eat our weight in nachos while enjoying a day at the ballpark. Participating in a pick-up basketball game can help us bond with our teammates and learn how to work together toward a common goal, sometimes putting the needs of the team before our own individual agendas. And when we compete with ourselves, we call upon our inner resolve to lift heavier weights or run the same route faster than we did the previous time, and that makes us better.

It is important to keep the effects of competition and our motivations for competing positive, however. If we take our desire to win to unhealthy extremes, we can compromise our integrity, our safety, and our relationships. We might overwork ourselves, or be tempted to cheat or commit some kind of sabotage (witness as an extreme but very real example the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan assault). We might come down hard on a teammate who isn’t performing up to our standards, when maybe those standards are unrealistic, or are being conveyed unkindly.

Of course, everyone wants to win, and winning is a noble goal because of all the aforementioned benefits that go with it, particularly the fact that we have to bring out the best in ourselves to prepare for and participate in competition. But winning in a way that diminishes us or another person confers a Pyrrhic victory. We make ourselves smaller and detract from our potential when we claim a win that we didn’t earn.

When we strike a balance between ambition, drive, and determination on the one hand, and humility, sportsmanship, and integrity on the other, we can reap the benefits of competition while still growing as people. Not sure how to strike that balance? This is where principled coaches, friends, and teammates can help you navigate. Find someone trustworthy to talk to about how to maximize your killer instinct AND your empathy. Then you will be better equipped to win with grace and lose with dignity, and then, regardless of the outcome, eventually to get back out there and test your mettle once again.

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