Ali versus Frazier. Johnson versus Bird. Nadal versus Djokovic. Sports fans live for great rivalries. The air crackles with excitement. Sports writers wax rhapsodic. Closely matched athletes can push one another toward ever-more-spectacular levels of play. And storied rivalries can even change the face of a sport: When basketball legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird squared off on the hardwood in the mid-’80s, a new generation of fans flocked to pro basketball, rescuing the NBA from the brink of bankruptcy. “Magic and Larry saved the NBA,” quipped sports commentator Bryant Gumbel.
Professional sports aren’t always so inspiring, of course. Witness doping in baseball, headhunting in the NFL, brawling in hockey. Sometimes bad behavior spreads like a cancer, infecting a sport’s entire culture. The recent effort to eradicate drugs from pro cycling is a good example, says Peloton cycling journalist John Madruga. “The spectacle of superhuman effort became more important to the athletes, coaches, media, and the fans than the dirty reality of where this effort was coming from.”
The same dynamic is at play in youth sports. At league soccer tournaments, you’ll see moments of inspired athleticism interspersed with scenes of coaches screaming at refs, kids throwing elbows in the heat of competition, and demoralized players walking off the field, sometimes never to return.
At all levels — and in all endeavors — competition is a double-edged sword. It brings out the best and the worst in spectators and participants alike.
The instinct to compete is part nature, part nurture. And our inclination is often to see nearly every endeavor in adversarial terms. “We teach our children win-lose contests almost from birth,” says fitness coach and lecturer Frank Forencich, author of Exuberant Animal: The Power of Health, Play and Joyful Movement. “We compete to get into college and we compete for jobs. Competitive athletics are simply a reflection of the way we’ve chosen to relate to one another.”
So the question becomes whether it is possible to approach competition in a way that maximizes its benefits while minimizing the pitfalls. Or, put more specifically, whether competition can inspire us to perform better while teaching valuable lessons about teamwork, goal setting, and staying cool under pressure — without trapping us in drama, ego bruising, and poor sportsmanship.
In short, say the experts, the answer is yes.
“The desire to win can be congruent with the desire to have a fair, equitable, and ethically grounded competition — even in a culture that values winning so highly,” says David Shields, PhD, a professor of educational psychology at St. Louis Community College–Meramec. The key, he believes, is how you approach the game.
Two Faces of Competition
There are two types of competition, says Shields — one leading to poor sportsmanship and cheap shots, the other to inspired performance and ethical play. “The word ‘competition’ literally means ‘to strive with, not strive against,’” he explains in his book True Competition: A Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport and Society. True competition, he continues, is a kind of partnership in which opponents push each other to achieve excellence. Each participant agrees to abide by the rules of the game and play to the utmost of his or her abilities. Such matches can be thrilling to watch and play.
Seeing your opponent as an enemy to be vanquished, on the other hand, is one of the hallmarks of what Shields calls “decompetition.” Cheating, flopping, bullying officials, and excessive trash-talking all indicate that a player sees his or her opponent not as a partner worthy of respect but as an adversary to be beaten, even humiliated, by any means necessary. This decompetitive mindset can affect an individual player for fleeting moments during a match, a team during a game or season, or it can even affect an entire sport for years at a time.
Recognizing that decompetition is an activity distinct from true competition helps to resolve some of the conflicting conclusions science has drawn about competition over the years. Summarizing decades of research in his seminal book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, social scientist Alfie Kohn argues that competition lowers performance while breeding anxiety, prejudice, aggression, and cheating.
Many recent studies support his claim: One 2010 study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology found that competitive pressure had no effect on a subject’s ability to complete a difficult task — but it did make subjects substantially more likely to cheat, especially if the task was exceptionally challenging for them. To Shields, these are classic examples of decompetition: The researchers’ conclusions are accurate, he says, “but they aren’t really talking about competition at all, but about an outwardly similar, though highly different, process.”
Other data support Shields’s belief that the right kind of competition motivates people to perform better, sometimes significantly so. In a 2012 study from England’s University of Portsmouth, researchers set up a virtual race and asked experienced cyclists to pedal stationary bikes as hard as they could for 2,000 meters through the computer-generated course. Then researchers asked the cyclists to do the virtual course again — this time racing against a competitor whose outline was projected on the screen next to theirs. What the cyclists didn’t know was that the competitor was actually a previously recorded image of themselves riding their personal best. Thinking they were racing against a closely matched rival, the cyclists beat their own previous best times by a substantial margin.
Another study, this one from England’s Northumbria University in 2011, found that cyclists in a similar setup could beat an avatar that worked 1 percent harder if they believed the avatar was moving at a speed they had accomplished in the past. When the cyclists knew that the avatar was moving faster than they’d ever gone, the cyclists lost, sometimes falling far short of their previous effort.
The takeaway from both studies is not only that closely matched competition can inspire exceptional performance, but also that a competitor’s beliefs about his opponents — and his own abilities — play a significant role in how a person fares in competition, and whether the competitive situation inspires him to excel.
The Keys to Competing Well
To get the most out of competitive situations, we need to recognize what competition looks and feels like when it’s working well, spot the signs that it’s degenerating, and take steps to frame the contest for ourselves in the most positive light. This can take some finesse. “Attitude and perception shift quite rapidly, and it’s quite common for both perspectives to come out in a single athlete in a single match,” says Shields. “In my own years as a college athlete, some of the time I was a true competitor — but not all of the time.”
Shields and other experts recognize a number of techniques you can use to set yourself up for success in any competitive arena:
Multiple Paths to Success. Competition can seem purely black and white: There’s one winner, one loser, one competitor left celebrating, one left licking her wounds.
An effective way out of this all-or-nothing mentality, suggests Felden-krais-movement instructor Elizabeth Beringer, editor of Embodied Wisdom: The Collected Papers of Moshe Feldenkrais, is to define success as broadly as possible. “If the only way you can think of to be successful in a race is to come in first or second, that’s a very narrow way of measuring achievement,” she says. Instead, you might focus on posting a personal-best time or improving some aspect of how you play the game.
“If you’re a runner,” says Beringer, “how smooth was your stride? How comfortable were you as you ran?” In team sports, how was your passing, your field sense? In a job interview, how well did you know the company? How well did you listen? How effectively did you state your case and sell your own strengths? By having a handful of goals anytime you compete — some related to your personal experience, others to the contest’s outcome — any competition can be a positive, affirming experience.
Process, Not Outcome. With competition comes pressure. Athletic contests (and job interviews, auditions, and other similar scenarios) are high-stakes situations that we naturally want to go our way. Paradoxically, though, you’re more likely to ensure a favorable outcome in competition by not thinking about the goal during the event itself and focusing instead on the process of competing.
By putting your attention on what’s going on in front of you — where the ball is, what the interviewer is saying, whether or not you’re breathing comfortably — rather than the eventual outcome of the game, you’re more likely to stay open to opportunities for winning shots, rebounds, and other key plays that eventually may add up to victory. And less likely to become overwhelmed by what might happen if the situation does or doesn’t go your way. “Too much emphasis on the goal takes people out of the present,” Beringer says. “It also takes you out of the value you’re getting from the activity and the sheer pleasure in the activity itself.” Ultimately, unless you’re a professional athlete, enjoyment is the main reason you play games, isn’t it?
This is not to say that you should give up on striving to win. Far from it. It’s that focusing on process and enjoyment — even when you feel pressure to perform — will bring about the excellent game play that often leads to winning. Says Shields, “True competition not only doesn’t detract from your desire to win or your pursuit of winning, it facilitates it.”
Partners, Not Enemies. If your tennis partner takes a few lessons and starts acing you regularly, you might become frustrated and stop playing against him. Equally, you might become motivated to improve your own game, which, in turn, might motivate him to improve his still further — thus pushing you both toward mastery.
Viewing your opponent as an enemy often leads to overinvestment in winning at all costs — and eventually to hostility and aggression, detriments to competent play. Frank Matrisciano, off-season trainer to some of the best college and professional basketball players in the country, expressly avoids the martial sport-as-war metaphor in his interactions with athletes: “I’ve worked with special-forces soldiers, SWAT guys, and others whose lives are on the line every day. And I say to my athletes, ‘Look, you’re not warriors. You play a sport. Your life is not on the line.’”
In the best circumstances, says Beringer, “other people can show us what’s possible, helping us to see options that might not have occurred to us.” An opponent, in other words, should be an inspiration — not just an obstacle. Healthy competition reinforces the idea that you and your opponent are both engaged in mutual pursuit of mastery rather than a high-stakes battle to the death.
Uncertainty. Part of what makes competition exciting is the sense of uncertainty: the as-yet-undefeated high school field-hockey team can’t be sure of another victory; the well-qualified interviewee can’t be sure of the job offer; the five-year bakeoff champion can’t be sure he’ll take home a sixth trophy.
Uncertainty is a potent motivator. We train harder than we might otherwise when we have a worthy opponent, and we can’t be sure that our existing skills will carry us to victory. Still, as the studies cited above indicate, most of us don’t play our best when we’re over- or undermatched. So when possible, opt to go up against competitors whose skills are a relatively equal match to your own.
And to help yourself see your opponent as a partner in excellence instead of someone to be vanquished, try using a mantra or cue. When you step onto the court or into the ring, says Shields, “a word or phrase like ‘focus’ or ‘excellence’ — which could mean both physical and ethical excellence — can help trigger you back into the right mental frame.”
The Ultimate Proving Ground
At its core, true competition is about growth and development. Take traditional martial arts as an example. On a superficial level, a martial arts class appears to be about as competitive a situation as you can imagine: Students learn to defend against attack, then punch, kick, or strike in return. They spar against one another and get promoted based on their ability to perform increasingly difficult and sometimes deadly maneuvers. It’s hard to think of another widely available type of class in which the goals are so explicitly combative and warlike.
Teachers of the traditional martial arts recognize that the deeper goal of such classes has little to do with breaking bones. “The ‘-do’ in words like aikido and judo literally means ‘way’ or ‘path,’” explains longtime aikido instructor Elizabeth Beringer. “The idea is that you’re doing the art not only because you’re interested in self-defense, but primarily as a means to develop yourself.”
In a similar way, any competitive situation can be an opportunity to take another step along your own path — and to take pleasure in learning about the game and about being gracious in both victory and defeat.
In that sense, competition can be the ultimate proving ground — not only for your skills at a particular game, but for your ability to remain centered and compassionate even in the midst of a situation that can feel contentious and divisive.
And, says Forencich, “That’s a great metaphor for living.”