ESPN runs a media campaign titled, “Why We Love Sports Today,” in which they highlight some positive effects the sports world has had on the rest of society. The stories that come from this campaign are a breath of fresh air in comparison to the typical news headlines, which are almost always depressing, irrelevant, or over-publicized, or a combination of all three.
In a more serious campaign, the United Nations (UN) has an agenda titled, “Sport for Development and Peace,” which has been gaining momentum since 2001. According to the UN website:
Sport and play are human rights that must be respected and enforced worldwide; sport has been increasingly recognized and used as a low-cost and high-impact tool in humanitarian, development and peace-building efforts.… Sport can no longer be considered a luxury within any society but is rather an important investment in the present and future, particularly in developing countries.
These comments highlight the immense impact that sport can have. While the UN identifies three forms of sport—competitive, physical activity, and play—the focus of this article will be on competition and its role in driving our society forward.
The Importance of Competition
Coaches are typically highly competitive individuals and, therefore, are extremely biased about the importance of competition. I include myself in this statement. I view nearly all aspects of life as a competition, and attempt to incorporate competition into nearly all endeavors. I do not partake in many activities “just for fun,” as it is hard for me to find “fun” outside of competition. In my mind, they go hand in hand.
What does being ultra-competitive mean?
There is an energy brewing deep within that, when harnessed effectively, can be a driving force towards appreciable achievement.
Let’s begin with the bad news. Being ultra-competitive means you have an insatiable thirst for winning. It is an unwavering aim to impress, overcome obstacles, and be victorious over others. Validation is sought vehemently and confidence is found in conquering.
Now for the good news. Being ultra-competitive means there is potential for greatness. There is an energy brewing deep within you that, when harnessed effectively, can be a driving force towards appreciable achievement.
I believe the importance of competition can be broken down into four key areas:
- Breaking Barriers
The first two—development and breaking barriers—have their place in youth and adult populations, respectively. The remaining two—success and failure—are the two primary results of competition. Breaking these areas down further will provide valuable insight into the profound benefits of competition.
“Play stimulates the parts of the brain involved in both careful, logical reasoning and carefree, unbound exploration.” – Greg McKeown
Development is the ongoing process of growth throughout the entirety of our lifespan. That being said, there are clearly phases with an increased rate of development. Childhood is one of these phases. Many people would agree that an enhanced period of development can be achieved through the inclusion of the dynamic duo of play and competition within childhood, and much research has been published on this relationship. For this reason, I will keep this section short and just highlight some key points.
For starters, as discussed in Essentialism, by author Greg McKeown, “Play stimulates the parts of the brain involved in both careful, logical reasoning and carefree, unbound exploration” (1). The potential for play to stimulate the full spectrum, from carefree exploration to careful reasoning, speaks volumes about the developmental impact it can have.
More specifically than just play, competition helps lead to both cognitive and motor control problem-solving skills. Competitors will also learn about working both individually and as part of a team, depending on the context of the activity. The development of a variety of problem-solving skills, coupled with insight into how to work alone and with others, is a powerful result of competition that will build on the athlete’s sense of purpose beyond sport.
A recent study found that, “active sport club participation leads to improvements in children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills, which are of similar size to the ones found for large-scale educational programs” (2). Incorporating competition into a child’s lifestyle is a much more cost-effective option than large-scale educational programs; not to mention more enjoyable. It also has the added benefit of increasing health and wellness.
Lastly, it has been found through study of the animal kingdom that, “play is so crucial to the development of key cognitive skills it may even play a role in species’ survival” (1). This is a profound and important statement, and provides a nice transition to the powers of play and competition beyond childhood development.
In addition to lending a hand in species’ survival, competition has the capacity to generate a push powerful enough to propel a species forward. Forward into greater achievements. Forward into uncharted territory. Forward into advancements throughout all realms of life.
The mechanism behind this powerful push is rivalry. Examples of advancement through competitive rivalry are widespread. Magic vs. Byrd. Coke vs. Pepsi. Freud vs. Jung. Jobs vs. Gates. Picasso vs. Matisse. The list of household name rival-duos across sport, business, science, and art is extensive.
Evidence of performance increases through competition and rivalry dates back to Triplett, who found that greater speeds were reached by bicyclists when directly competing than when cycling alone (3).
Athletes must first be able to properly execute their mechanics on solo repetitions before you can expect them to execute when lined up against others.
How can we apply this understanding of the increased motivation and drive experienced through competition, and harness it into increased performance? And how do we do this specifically within an individual sport such as track & field? While lining athletes up next to each other for sprints and drills is an option, it is not always the best option from a pedagogical point of view. Athletes must first be able to properly execute their mechanics on solo repetitions before you can expect them to execute when lined up against others.
This is where the Freelap Timing System can be of assistance. When utilized for the solo repetitions, you will still experience an increase in motivation and drive without the potential risk of throwing mechanics out the window. Competition with the Freelap Timing System will also give the athlete opportunities to deal with success and failure, and give the coach insight into the way that their athletes handle such situations.
Success and Failure
For those with a growth mindset, success is a product of the process that led to it; failure is motivating and informative.
Before diving into success and failure, it is important to briefly discuss the work of Carol S. Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. After decades of research on success and achievement across many different platforms, she has uncovered two opposing mindsets an individual can possess: growth and fixed (4). Those who view their traits and qualities as moldable through hard work and dedication are said to have a “growth” mindset. To the contrary, those who view their traits and qualities as carved in stone and unchangeable are said to have a “fixed” mindset.
Competition inevitably results in either success or failure, but it is how you handle the result—rather than the result itself—that will determine whether your competitive experience was positive or negative. For those with a fixed mindset, success is solely about establishing their superiority and failure is viewed as an insurmountable hurdle. Success must come easily, as showing effort is viewed as pedestrian, and failure can be devastating. For those with a growth mindset, success is a product of the process that led to it; failure is motivating and informative. Success is earned and failure holds much to be learned.How you handle a competition’s result determines whether your experience is positive or negative. Click To Tweet
It is vitally important for individuals partaking in competition to possess a growth mindset. When this is the case, competition can result in more than just success or failure; it can result in an experience with a multitude of benefits. Success comes from effort, learning, and improving, and becomes its own reward. Enlightenment and a spur to increase performance the next go-around should be the result of failure.
A Concluding Call to Action
The prevalence of competition is hard to miss, from lighthearted media campaigns to serious social reform, and from childhood play to professional events. It even exists across art, science, and business. Competition is everywhere. It is time to look critically at competition and the role it can play within the athletic world and beyond. It is time to devise a plan aimed at harnessing the power found within competition. It is time to compete.For more coach and athlete resources from ALTIS, see ALTIS 360.
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- McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Crown Business, 2014. pp. 86-87.
- Felfe, C., Lechner, M., & Steinmayr, A. (2011). Sports and child development.
- Triplett, N. (1898) “The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition.” American Journal of Psychology, 9, 507-533.
- Dweck, C. S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.