21 Jul 2022

The competitive spirit

Competitive spirit is a powerful urge to win, an indispensable attribute of athletes and sporting heroes everywhere. Whether you are a top-flight professional, a club player, or simply someone that kicks around a football in the park every Saturday morning with a bunch of mates, it is competitive spirit that infuses the sport with urgency, passion and commitment.

But, as with so many character traits, it can be a dangerous force when it is unbridled or extreme. It is easy to tip over into full-blown obsession, dangerous levels of self-castigation, and a treacherous propensity to undermine and mock opponents.

With roots in the Latin word competere, which means to meet or come together, competition is ideally about striving together for excellence or perfection, not about seeking to dominate, conquer or eliminate opponents. Legendary sporting rivalries between teams and individuals embody this spirit, and with it inevitably comes a respect and admiration for opponents, who are honoured rather than degraded.

It is all too easy for coaches, team managers, trainers and fans to whip up the competitive spirit, urging the competitors on, first and foremost, to win. This is scarcely a surprising aspiration, but in the aftermath of a famous victory it is always enlightening to take a close look at the behaviour of the competitors.

Was their behaviour sportsmanlike? Were they magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat? Did they strut in triumph or sulk morosely when they lost? Did they accept the decisions of referees, umpires and linesmen with good grace, with no arguing or dispute? Were they civil to spectators and supporters or did they berate them for their lack of enthusiasm? Did they demonstrate respect to their opponents, before and after the event? Or did they demonise and bad-mouth them, creating a poisonous atmosphere outside the competitive cauldron?

Sport can push us to our limits, sometimes to breaking point. We’ve all witnessed the unedifying spectacle of international competitors wrestling unsuccessfully with adversity, ranting and raving, talking to themselves, screaming at anyone who’ll listen. Nobody would argue that this sort of personality breakdown is the price we have to pay for sporting success, so how do we harness the force of competitiveness for positive ends?

What Makes a True Competitor?

• Effective competitors are able to compartmentalise their behaviour – unleashing their formidable will, intensity and energy in the arena, but equally capable of being laid-back and easy-going the rest of the time.

• Competitors need to handle both winning and losing in order to foster their competitive spirit. Winning should spur them on to greater ambitions – consistent victories, record-breaking feats. Losing should drive them to intense self-scrutiny – analysing their shortcomings or weaknesses rather than blaming their opponents (or the crowd, stadium, weather, coach etc), and creating a strategy for eliminating them in the future.

• True competitors do not even need an opponent other than themselves. Their focus is always on their own performance, their own level of fitness, how they have improved their results over time. All their achievements contribute to a strong sense of self-confidence, which they then carry into the competitive arena.

• Setting goals – to improve fitness, break records or achieve great victories– and adhering to them, is how true competitors silence any niggling sense of self-doubt.

Of course, competitive spirit is not just about sport, and we are all encouraged to harness it, academically and professionally, in the great race to get ahead. But is it sometimes dangerous to be too competitive – both in sport and in everyday life?

Avoiding Competitive Overdrive

• If your sense of competition is motivated by powerful feelings of jealousy and envy, you may well feel impelled to win, but the negativity surrounding your motivation will leave you feeling jaded and disappointed. Try and find more inspirational reasons for succeeding.

• The will to win can become so strong that you become obsessive. This state of blinkered single-mindedness may render you completely blind to other people, as everything becomes subordinated to your goal. Your behaviour will inevitably deteriorate as a result, and people close to you will feel sidelined.

• If the way in which you value yourself is by your achievements, then any failure can have a disastrous impact on your feelings of self-worth. You need to see the drive to succeed as a motivational force, but not as a defining aspect of your character.

• Constantly remind yourself about why you are competing and what you are competing for. Sometimes the momentum of the drive to succeed is completely overwhelming, and just takes over. This can leave you feeling disillusioned, wondering what happened to your goals and dreams.

• The 'winner takes it all' mentality can be very detrimental to your ability to cope with real-life situations, where you are required to work cooperatively in teams, live in harmonious, mutually-supportive families, and progress side-by-side with your peers. If your competitiveness means that you can no longer be a constructive team player, you may have gone too far.


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