In today’s brave new world where everyone gets a trophy for participating, and keeping score is deemed vulgar, competition seems to be such a dirty word.
Perhaps there are some good reasons for that, such as:
- The hypercompetitive boor who takes things too seriously and is a poor sport at winning and losing.
- The hovering parent who yells at coaches and referees when his 5-year-old swings and misses.
These are the poor examples of what competitiveness can breed. The best examples are more common, and most of us have probably seen that appropriate and healthy competition can bring out the best in us.
From children that blossom through the camaraderie and challenge in organized sports, to the office workers motivated by company incentives, good competitive spirit can be uplifting and positive.
Yet, not everyone responds the same way to rivalry.
It’s common to see talented athletes choke under pressure, and students bomb oral and practical exams even though they know the material.
Stress and pressure make diamonds, but they can also crush and rip things apart.
In the fitness world, the most obvious examples of competitive atmospheres are CrossFit and Orange Theory, where measures of success revolve around posting numbers and times for each daily workout, with rankings given to those who are more successful. Other examples are the various races and obstacle course runs such as Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Zombie Run, etc., that tap into the desire to beat the person next to us.
What Makes ‘Healthy’ Competition, and Why is it Important?
- What is it that separates those who thrive with competition and those who wither under the stress?
- What is appropriate and healthy competition, and does that mean the same for everybody?
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, delved into the research and came up with very interesting discoveries.
I read their first work, NurtureShock, a few years ago and enjoyed their take on dispelling the myths behind certain methods of parenting.
With this new wave of popular social science books that seek to upend “popular wisdom,” such as Freakonomics and Blink, combined with memoirs from obsessive Tiger Moms and laissez-faire French parenting, there seem to be as many views about how to act and live as there are people walking the streets of New York.
Even the ones that claim to be “research based” can be too selective in the editing of that research.
So whom can we trust?
Well, as we discussed in one of our GMB podcasts, it’s all about taking this information in the context of our experiences. They all can be important drivers of applying critical thinking to our assumptions.
In this article, we’ll go over some of the findings from Top Dog, which found that, in general, competition is best under a series of conditions. And, specifically, we’ll look at how those situations correspond to our experiences with our students, clients, and ourselves.
The proper application of competitive action can drive us beyond what we could do on our own, but its improper use can stop us from progressing at all.
Below is a description of a few key concepts, and exploring them gives great insights into what will work best for your own personal situation.
1. Compete with Peers, Not Superiors
One of the findings in Top Dog was what occurred when researchers examined the effects of grouping students for the purpose of improving their academic performance.
In the Air Force Academy, there was a thought that interspersing students that were having academic difficulties with the school’s brightest and most ambitious students would lift them up to a higher level. They assigned living and studying areas to the students to integrate everyone into their facility.
Though this seemed to be a reasonable thought, it proved very wrong.
“Low Performer” Group
Those cadets who were having issues–dubbed “low performers”–not only continued to have problems, but they actually got worse! Test scores and homework skills decreased across the board for these low performers.
Rather than being inspired or “lifted up” by the top performing students, their proximity to them caused a negative effect.It appeared that the low performers were made to feel inadequate by constantly seeing how well the top performers were doing.
It wasn’t until these low performers formed their own clique and interacted only with each other that they saw a number of improved academic achievements. They needed to remove themselves from the top performers to thrive and succeed. This was the complete opposite of what the administration and the researchers expected.
“Middle Performers” Group
Adding on to this was the success of the “middle performer” group, set up as a control.
Students that fell between the high and low performance groupings were brought together in the same cohort and were expected to remain steady in their testing. However, they made significant improvements, likely because they were all of the same academic level.
This bears out with our own experiences. The drive to compete and do well is usually best when people are brought together from similar positions. The race has to be close, or you’ll feel like it is a waste of your efforts to try to catch up with someone so far ahead.
It can be frustrating to be paired up with a partner that is significantly more skilled than you are, and it’s also not ideal to have someone who is far below your level, as you simply won’t be spurred on to achieving greater performance.
2. Compete With a Few, Not Many
Another factor in competitive performance is how many people you are competing against. Does it matter whether you are going against a smaller group of people versus a wider field?
Researchers looked at SAT scores across the nation, wherein the statistics show the highest average scores are from people in Arkansas, Alabama, and Montana. So much for uneducated hicks in the sticks….
Why would these relatively rural places have the highest average SAT scores?
It turns out it’s not related to specific areas, but rather to the number of students taking the test at their designated spots.
Taking a test with more people resulted in lower scores, while centers with fewer student test takers received higher marks. This may seem strange because the students were well aware that there were thousands of kids taking the test across the nation. Yet this didn’t matter as much as seeing how many kids were around you at your testing facility.
It appears that when we compare our chances against that of a greater number of people vying for the same goal or prize, our performance declines. Perhaps it is because we become overwhelmed and either put forth less effort or succumb to the anxiety.
It’s interesting that this was a general tendency across individuals. Now it may be different for those who crave and excel under pressure. We know, or are ourselves, these kind of people.
The more difficult the challenge and the greater the odds stacked against, the better the performance. It’s a great skill to have and develop.
3. Think about Winning, Rather than Not Losing
This leads to another fascinating discovery, which sheds some light on just exactly how some people do well under pressure and why some fold under the strain.
There appears to be a very significant distinction in the mindset of “winning” vs. “trying not to lose.”
Playing The Game
A great example in Top Dog, outlined the story of the 2006 Wimbledon women’s singles final match between Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin.
Both women were aggressive players and it was an exciting match. In the first set Henin dominated and won 6 games to 2. She was crushing Mauresmo and had all the momentum going into the next set. However, at that point Mauresmo seemed to have a fire under her and bounced back to win.
After being very confident and controlling in the first set, Henin was now tentative and playing not to lose. She increased the amount of unforced errors and was giving away points due to her misses and double faulting serves.
In trying to play safe and losing her confidence, she circled down the drain and lost her winning edge.
At critical moments, her mental attitude (“just don’t lose this one”) led to an adoption of failed playing strategies (overcompensating and shorting her shots).
Psychologists began researching these mental attitudes as “success oriented” and “failure avoidant” which soon progressed to the current thinking of “gain-oriented” and “prevention-oriented”.
- Being oriented toward gain, a person takes higher risks to make things happen to obtain things they don’t already possess.
- Prevention orientation pushes another person to avoid danger and loss.
Both of these orientations exist within us, but it’s the prominence of one over the other that guides our decisions in a given moment.
You can see that having one attitude or the other can be a matter of the experiences of an individual and their personality type and overall temperament. But like every other skill, it’s a trainable process.
Applying These Principles to Your Own Life
Previously, I wrote about the incredible importance of good social support in order to reach your goals – physical or otherwise. You simply can’t have people daily bringing you down or circumventing your efforts to change.
It’s hard enough as it is to keep yourself consistent and working hard, let alone having to fight against other people’s negative attitudes.
That actually goes hand in hand with the description of appropriate and healthy competition. Having the right level of opposition and the proper attitude towards “playing the game” will spur you on to greater and more significant progress.
Applying Healthy Competition Strategy #1
First, you’ll need to find a peer group to compare yourself with and stoke that competitive fire. Remember it should include people that are at the same level of skill and ability as yourself. Too high and you’ll get discouraged, too low and you won’t feel challenged.
If your goals are academic or work related, then get with other students or co-workers that are matched well with you.
And it doesn’t require a lot of in-person activity.
Simply knowing that there are other competitors working toward the same goals is a great motivator. You’ll just need to have regular check-ins, whether through phone calls, emails, texts, etc., – to gauge your progress against each other and to calibrate your efforts.
This is the beauty of our interconnected age. You can search for your peers all over the world and be able to communicate with them regularly as you work towards improving yourselves. Facebook groups, online forums, and self-directed email lists link us to a great variety of people and make it much easier to find like-minded people.
Applying Healthy Competition Strategy #2
Next, you’ll want to limit this group to a relatively small amount of participants.
This doesn’t mean that you’ll have to wall yourself off from others and form a pack of “us against the world” like in a zombie apocalypse. But it may mean having groups within groups to lessen the perception of so many competitors.
It’ll actually likely work itself out as everyone figures out the varying skill levels and personality compatibilities.
Human social groups tend to ferret themselves out over time. Whether this is a good or bad thing, depends on the choices and the mindset of the group.
Be vigilant to separate yourself from bullies and knuckleheads and you’ll be better off for it.
Applying Healthy Competition Strategy #3
Lastly, you’ll want a group where you feel an appropriate amount of pressure – not so much that you’ll switch over to self-protection mode and play not to lose, but enough that you you feel spurred on to succeed.
It’s a fine line, but a lot of it comes down to how comfortable you are with those you are competing against and your attitude toward what it means to progress and to win.
Competition Done Right
I teach my martial arts students with a lot of competitive drilling and sparring. It can be rough and tumble, but we work to always keep it safe and progressive.
There is the element of danger and stress that has to be there for improvement, but it’s never too much that it spills over to unmanageable threat.
This takes a lot of mutual respect and a positive environment. There is no better recipe than that for success.
Competition doesn’t have to be a dirty, win-at-all-costs scenario. Done right, it will take us further than we can do for ourselves, and can create lasting bonds between the participants.
One of the best ways to get some healthy competition in your life is by being part of a supportive community. Join the GMB Posse (it’s free!), and you’ll get weekly emails, news about events happening near you, and you’ll be a part of our kickass community-at-large. Huzzah!