In it to Win it? The Double Edged Sword of Competition

A central tenet of Live Now Thrive Later is to avoid focusing on extrinsic goals. Rather, it is better to live in the moment, and derive pleasure, fulfillment and satisfaction from whatever it is you are doing right now, while you are doing it.

That you concentrate on doing the task in hand the best you can, and commend yourself for the effort you put in, rather than the “results” you get out.

For example, if one goes to the gym to “lift weights”, it’s important that you focus on producing fatigue in the muscles, not on how many reps you manage, or what weight is on the bar. Also, on a more abstract level, it’s important to enjoy the process of training while you’re doing it, rather than to be too hung up on factors out of your control, like how much muscle you are building or fat you are burning.

Big Goals Can Backfire Infographic
Came across this great infographic on just this topic at YMLSportsScience

Most, if not all, mainstream sports are the exact opposite of this philosophy, with the focus squarely on the extrinsic goal of winning. How then do sports fit into the Live Now Thrive Later lifestyle?

Is competition a bad thing? Can it have benefits? Are there ways we can adapt competitive sports, or our attitudes towards them, in order to maximise the benefits whilst minimising the negatives?

Maybe, but perhaps they were happier anyway!

Does Competition Improve Performance?

It is often said, that competition increases performance.

For example, imagine we asked someone to perform as many press ups as they can, and they managed 20 before failure.

If we were to pit them against someone else of similar level, however, they would more than likely manage at least 21 or more.

This kind of example is often cited as evidence that competition is good, as it boosts performance and is responsible for the ever-increasing limits of human physical achievement. Without competition, it is argued, we’d never have broken the 4 minute mile, run 100m in under 10 seconds, or high jumped over 8′.

For this reason, it is becoming a common feature of many fitness programs, led by CrossFit, to make competition part of daily training, with an aim to boost gains through increased motivation.

Increased Motivation is the True Driver of Higher Performance

While it may be true that competition can improve performance in certain circumstances, I think it should also be questioned if it is the only way, the most effective way, or even if it can back fire?

Let’s go back to the press up example. There are clearly other ways to motivate the individual to perform more press ups – for example a prize of £1 million if they manage 25.

What really motivates maximal performance is reward

Within our society, we have fostered a culture where physical superiority is praised and exalted. The ego therefore learns to crave and seek out this adulation.

Pit our hypothetical person against someone else who manages 22 press ups, and quite possibly they will manage to crank out 23 or more, particularly if there is a crowd of peers watching them.

But what if the rival only manages 5 press ups? What if they manage 50?

If competition is the driver of performance, weak competition won’t produce motivation, and much stronger competition could even result in demotivation and the desire to quit.

You are only cheating yourself?

A focus on beating the competition, also increases the motivation to cheat, and take risks.

There is always shock and outrage when a professional sports star is caught doping, but personally I am never surprised, nor would I hold it against the individual athlete.

Hate the game, not the player, as they say.

In our culture of competition, capitalism and superstardom, what choice do they have? If an athlete doesn’t win, they lose their fans, their income, their status. If they don’t dope, but their competition does, they are out of the game, they have lost before they have started.

I am sure most athletes would much prefer a world without performance enhancing drugs – they often carry risky and unpleasant side effects, and getting caught results in shaming and disqualification. I’d warrant that nowadays very few are laughing maniacally saying “With these secret drugs I am going to annihilate all competition”, but more likely “Yikes, I really don’t want to be risking this, but without them I could lose my chance to compete and sponsorship”.

Drugs are not the only way in which athletes are often pressured to take risks. The fear of doing too little in training and losing any slight edge encourages them to push their bodies to the limit, and occasionally beyond.

Not long ago, I talked about CrossFit, and it’s potential dangers. In reality, these potential dangers are greatly exacerbated by the culture of competition they have fostered. It’s when people try to get those extra reps, with bad technique, or fighting through pain, just to get a higher score on the board, that injuries are most likely to happen.

Commendation and Collaboration is the Wiser Choice

Personally, I don’t believe that competition is necessary to push the limits of human performance.

Yes, it is true that within competitive gymnastics records continue to be broken – longer holds, more spins, cleaner execution etc, and no doubt competition is a driver behind this progress.

If we look to the discipline of circus acrobatics, however, which is similar in many ways physiologically to gymnastics, but where competition is not a major factor, we still see people doing amazing things, pushing the limits of human performance, and constantly innovating and improving on past performance.

I’d also argue that the absence of a strict set of rules (necessary to judge performance in a competition fairly), leaves more room for creativity. Personally, though I love watching gymnastics, I prefer circus acts such as Cirque du Soleil due to the greater variety and innovation, but I digress.

Competition also often precludes collaboration, a factor which could actually hinder advancement.

Currently, the top two contenders of a discipline may be driven to train and compete harder in order to out perform one another – but what if they were to work together? Share training and nutrition secrets, coach each other on technique and give one another feedback and ideas?

Be Inspired and Motivated by the Performance of Others, but Remember Winning isn’t Anything…

This was originally intended to be just a sidebar to another article, so I’m not going to go on too much!

Let me just finish by saying that I think we should most definitely celebrate the ever-increasing limits of physical performance – It’s an amazing testament to the human spirit that we keep trying (and succeeding) in going higher, faster, further, harder.

Seeing other people break records, invariably opens the door to many more to also break these barriers – think the 4 min mile or sub 10s 100m – records once thought unbreakable, but once broken the floodgates were opened.

What we should really focus upon and celebrate however, is the desire and effort of each individual, to reach and exceed their own personal goals and challenges.

There’s no real need or benefit to being able to run 100m 0.5 seconds faster than someone else, so why idolise only the podium placers?

Is it not better to celebrate and appreciate the hard work of all those who train hard and eat well everyday, in order achieve their own personal best?

Take inspiration from others, but don’t make comparisons or place too much weight in results – rather focus on commendation of effort (your own and that of others), and collaboration, in order that all can achieve their own personal best, without over training or any other unnecessary abuse of one’s body.

2 thoughts on “In it to Win it? The Double Edged Sword of Competition”

  1. Pingback: Strength and Conditioning for Sports – Separating Fact from Fiction

  2. Pingback: Why I’d Still Skip the Ice Baths, Even if they Worked

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