Competitiveness is the heart of sports. If you think about competitive athletes, who comes to your mind? Michael Jordan? Kobe Bryant? We know something of those two tall dudes’ personalities – they brought competition everywhere they went.
Then we have a bunch of athletes that lack that huge competitive drive to win? But is that lack a harming and negative thing? Can athlete be a “non-competitive athlete” and still succeed? What is the competitive edge in competitive sports if not competitiveness?
Then we have a coach, Pete Carroll from Seattle Seahawks, whose personal philosophy is “Always compete”. But when he is asked winning or competing, his answer is competing. What the heck? What about winning?
So let’s take a dip into what competitiveness in sports is, what are some personality differences within competitiveness and how to cultivate your competitive side to bloom. 😊
COMPETITIVE ATHLETES & NON-COMPETITIVE ATHLETES
“People just don’t understand how obsessed I am with winning”. -Kobe Bryant
All you think about is how to win the next thing, how to beat others, how to be the best, and that drives you forward the most. You don’t get satisfaction unless you win. Sounds familiar?
Competitive athletes are motivated by competition, they are lit on fire when the game begins, that is when they feel the most alive. They are almost obsessed with score, they argue with referees and might be ruthless towards others whether it is someone on their side whose performance they are not happy about or someone from the opposite side who is in the way of their victory. What should we do with these athletes?
Non-competitive athletes are the ones who are ok with competition but they are not necessarily driven by competition, some might even turn off when they are being put on the spot and challenged “now it’s you against [fill in the blank], let’s see who wins!”. Even if this is a good tool for many athletes to motivate them, it does not work for all. What should we do with these athletes?
Well those are pretty much the two extremes and most of us fall somewhere in between. Me as well. Some of my earliest memories of my own competitiveness was my want to challenge dad in sprinting when I thought I was extremely fast for a girl. Bad idea, my dad used to be a sprinter. Lost to him all those years.. Even with my new spikes that I thought will be the key to finally beat him.
Then I wanted to run against the boys in my class. We also competed who did the math tests and English tasks etc. the fastest. I arranged obstacle races around our yard when we got guests so we could compete! Sorry everyone who planned to came to eat cake on my birthdays…
I also enjoyed testing myself from young age and I still haven’t lost that side of myself. I only got super mad when I lost to my little sisters in something. Ok in anything. Ugh that was maddening. Monopoly and badminton were the worst.
But still, despite this background… I have never been the person who shouts out loud that I am gonna beat you all, just wait for it! Or anything like that. Competitiveness does not have to be loud. You can be silently supercompetitive. Some people think that unless you are vocal about competition, you would not be a competitor. I call that BS. Actions speak louder than words.
If I am being motivated by putting me against someone else and see which one wins, same thing, more silent focus than bluster of any kind. I retreat. My mind focuses on myself and what I need to do. It is not about the opponent, it is about me. One of my all time favorite quotes has been “Work hard in silence, let success be your noise” by Frank Ocean. Still is.
I am telling this as an example so you would dive a little deeper into yourself and what competition has been to you.
What are your earliest memories about competing?
How did you approach competition as a kid?
Before you understood that you might get criticized and disappointed if you compete? Before you knew that failing was an option?
What happens to you when you are put into the competition?
Will you get anything out of yourself if there is no competition?
When competing became important to you? And why is it important to you?
I admit that I need goals and challenges to leave it all on the line, I am just not casually sprinting my lungs out everyday for fun, but I do it twice a day if I have a goal that requires it. I know I am my biggest opponent. But I can also be the biggest motivator of myself when the goals click.
In the Sports Capacity Assessment we have also measured Competitiveness but it is called as “Competitive Power” to measure how much power this athlete gets from competition and especially in winning and beating others.
So winning and competing against yourself is not part of why you would not get that high score on this assessment. It is, however, important to note that there are no good or bad results in our assessment which is the reason I am now writing about competitiveness.
Many athletes question themselves as being not competitive enough, many have said something along these lines that “oh no, my Competitive Power is that low, this must be a bad thing”. And the ones on the other extreme are celebrating that “It must be an advantage that this score is high, I am always ready to take people down!”. Hence this post.
If you don’t have a huge competitive drive to win and beat others, it is not a sign that competitive sports is not for you. And, if you only focus on beating others, that might not going to be your advantage before long. It might be your disadvantage. There is a “healthier” way to be competitive which can also take you to the top. This alternative works for both ends of the competitive spectrum, read on Brave Reader to learn about this mindshift.
Let’s start firing some facts.
COMPETITIVENESS IN SPORTS
Succeeding in sports does not equal a super competitive mindset towards winning and end results. It is time to broaden that assumption.
In addition, if you are already taking part in competitive sports, there is a very big chance that you are competitive by nature. It is also likely that since you are in competitive sports, everyone else is competitive too and that is why you feel more or less competitive than others. Depends very much where you are. The point is just that sports are competitive, people ending up in sports environments are more likely to be competitive compared to the “normal” population.
In the sports world, (and in many organizations and companies as well) competition is sometimes and perhaps too often a disruptive factor, not unifying. It is not seen as a continuous strive towards excellence but as if the end point is beating others. It is a bit sad to me.
How much better would our teams, organizations and human beings be if we would focus more on striving so close to excellence as possible and take responsibility to develop our own excellence instead of using energy of worrying what others are doing, getting and achieving?
A very competitive approach to life has also been recognized in research, called Competitive Worldview and defined as:
“a person’s tendency to perceive the world as a competitive jungle characterized by a ruthless, amoral struggle for resources and power in which might is right and winning everything”.
Sounds pretty intense huh? I brought it up because it is also good to acknowledge that for some of us, the world is a competitive platform as a whole. But it does not have to be and it does not predict long-term success and happiness. There are often some other inner struggles that drives people behave ruthlessly towards others.
If you are one of those who would now feel a little guilty thinking.. Well I am not that competitive, maybe I am not competitive enough to succeed.. Think for a minute, or ten lol, what does competitiveness mean to you?
Where do these feelings of inferiority derive from?
Who has said that performing on an absolutely excellent level would be dependent on the will to win prizes?
Where did you learn this?
What are your own thoughts about your performance, when do you get the best out of yourself?
There is not one way that we can say that athletes should be to succeed. It is just important to know what drives you and fuels your motivation accordingly. The point is to get the best out of yourself – so know yourself.
HOW TO HAVE A COMPETITIVE MINDSET?
So this Pete Carroll guy. Let’s talk about him. Here is a caption from his philosophy and approach to competition:
“Competition is typically defined as a contest between individuals, groups, teams, or nations; it is a test of skills. In my world, however, competition is much more than that. It is a mentality, an outlook, and a way of approaching every day.
The essence of my message about competing has nothing to do with the opponent. My competitive approach is that “it’s all about us.” If we’ve really done the preparation to elevate ourselves to our full potential, it shouldn’t matter whom we’re playing.”
So it is competition to get as much out of yourself and your unique potential as possible, the game is against yourself, not so much depending on the opponent. It is purely striving towards excellence and your own best.
Which will then take us nicely and smoothly to self-determination theory and succeeding. I read this research article about perfectionists and motivations in sports and very simply and shortly, the more self-determined the athlete was, the better mental toughness they had which is then one of the predictors of success. Non-self-determined athletes were more concerned over results which then lead to more worrying and not reaching their best.
Self-determination theory could be another blog post itself (let me know if that is something you would want to hear more about!) but summarizing it pretty shortly is that it is very much about growth and how that motivates people. It also has impacts therefore on motivation. Self-determination refers to the feeling of control that people have over their choices and lives.
How? Self-determination contains three parts according to the theory (you can find more for example from here: https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/). Those three parts are
a) Competence, so for example the skills in your sports. When you learn a certain level of the needed skills in your sport, you are more likely to get some moments of success and fulfillment in your sports.
b) Connection, you also want to feel connected in your sport, if it is a team setting, within your team for example.
c) Autonomy, you want to be in charge of your own behavior and goals, you don’t want to be just getting directions and goals from someone without having any say in anything.
Noticed something, these are pretty much internal matters? Mmhm, nicely noted friend! So if we now reflect competitiveness with Self-Determination Theory – it sounds like a pretty good idea to focus on your inner world and competition right? If your only incentive is to win competitions, get medals and fame, those are all externally motivating factors that you have limited control over.
If you on the other hand aim to be better than you were yesterday and have something you are intrinsically motivated about, you are more likely to have a bigger bunch of self-determination running inside your veins, helping you to be more mentally tough. And that helps you to succeed.
Important note: It must not be misunderstood however that you can still want to win and get to those extrinsic rewards as well, life is not once again black and white. We got color-TVs in Finland in 1968 (yes I googled that). So let’s enjoy the colors since we have them.
Wanting to get more external rewards can be linked with internal that can boost your competitiveness. The danger is if you have solely extrinsic goals that are all out of your control and you obsess over them. The end goal is not under your control which can therefore cause a great deal of anxiety. Then there is a bigger risk to get burnouts, injuries, start using doping and so on.
The more you focus on the concerns over the results, the less freely you can perform which then lowers your ability to reach your potential when it matters.
One more thing about competition that I want to mention even if might be so clear for many. But competition and fun can both co-exist. We can be ultracompetitive towards ourselves and still at the same time have fun in practices. Competitiveness does not mean that we need to forget how to smile and look like our mouth and eyebrows have been replaced with rulers.😑
There is an excellent podcast episode about joy and sports by Steve Kerr in Finding Your Mastery podcast if someone wants to listen to that one.
So more successful, competitive mindset is easier to develop, (and the sports psychologists are suggesting this),
- if you shift the focus more on yourself than on obsessing over the opponent or the end result. You are more likely to reach your ultimate best that way.
- Winning something is not the best end goal necessarily. It can be a goal. But it should not be the only goal. What happens to your motivation if you would win for example a national championship? If it is only about that goal and win, once completed is your career then fulfilled…?
- Developing a mindset for athletes where they find joy in getting better and find that competitive edge in them, not outside them and by comparison to others, is more likely to result also in better self-determination which is then proven to be the way to get mentally tougher athletes.
So let’s end with quotes from a very mentally tough athlete. Kobe Bryant’s quotes. Even if he was one of the most ultracompetitive athletes ever, he has also said the words below about winning and development. Ps. Don’t forget that if winning truly is important to you, then you do your everything so that the team wins, even if it’s sitting on a bench.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to win games, whether it’s sitting on a bench waving a towel, handing a cup of water to a teammate, or hitting the game-winning shot.”
“The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great at whatever they want to do.”
“I want to see if I can. I don’t know if I can. I want to find out. I want to see. I’m going to do what I always do: I’m going to break it down to its smallest form, smallest detail, and go after it. Day by day, one day at a time.” — Kobe Bryant
Thank you for reading <3
Sources and further reading:
Cowden, RG, Crust L, Jackman PC, Duckett TR. Perfectionism and motivation in sport: the mediating role of mental toughness. A Afr. J Sci 2019; 115 ½, Art. #5271. https://doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2019/5271
Cowden RG. On the mental toughness of self-aware athletes: Evidence from competitive tennis players. S Afr J Sci. 2017;113(1/2), Art. #2016-0112, 6 pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/ sajs.2017/20160112
Self-Determination Theory: https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/
Pete Carroll, Win Forever