Psychology of Competition

Why do people compete? Can you think of anything more destructive psychologically. The worry, upset stomach, sleepless nights. Of course there are all levels of competition and I would assume from observing the human race over these seventy plus years, that not everyone likes to compete at very high levels. In fact my best guess is that only a small minority love the high level of competition.

Now I am talking about competition that can keep you awake at night wondering if you have done the right things to be at your best. It doesn’t have to be in the world of sports but exists in business, religion, the arts etc. The level of competition where you put everything on the line, do or die as they say.  But I have been in the world of business and the only time I felt the same as when I was competing in sport was when my livelihood was at stake. In other words something must be at stake or at least you feel something is at stake. In sports it may be as simple as your reputation.

When I was in high school at the State competition I was as nervous or maybe more so than when I stepped to the line for an important international race. Why? I had nothing to lose except myself imposed reputation. I wasn’t expected to win by anyone, even myself.  But there was something, some idea in my mind, that I must run well, for if I didn’t I would bring shame upon myself. Is that what it was?  A mentally contrived idea of my own making.

Humans, because we are thinking animals, have a way of making too much of an ordeal. We worry about what might be and not what is. Many times we make things worse than they are.  Of course I can think of some scenarios that are so bad our own minds cannot comprehend what is going to happen to us. When something goes wrong with our bodies, something that is life threatening, we have a hard time comprehending. We worry about the situation. We don’t have to contrive anything.  What is real is real enough, there is no reason to go beyond reality.  Having said all that let me go to the part of competition I know the best. Man against man, head to head, with something at stake. As I look back I was more nervous when I was not as well prepared as I wanted to be. But what does that mean? How did I know that I wasn’t prepared? I surely didn’t know what my competitors were doing in their training. I thought I was doing everything possible in my training in high school. Of course as I look back I think how funny that statement is. If I was doing fifteen miles a week it would have been good.

When I was in High School I remember lining up for the State Mile race and being so nervous I walked off the track and threw-up. I did it in college too and as I look back I realize I wasn’t handling the situation but I was allowing the situation to handle me.  Later I made a discovery, a mental awakening if you will. I decided I would only run as well as the shape I was in. Oh I knew I could factor in the excitement of the race but that would always be there. The one thing I could control was the work I could and would do in the weeks, months and years prior to the race. Therefore if I was prepared properly I could and would run well. Being prepared properly meant that I was doing more and better work than my competitors. And yes, some humans are born to be better in many ways.

How did I know I was in better condition? How did I know I was doing more work? I didn’t, that’s right I didn’t.  So how do you assess your condition against those who want to run you into the ground. You step to the same starting line and test your body against theirs. Your Physical conditioning and your mental conditioning is put to the test. If you lose, you spend some time re-evaluating your training. Where can I change the training so I can become a better athlete? Do I spend more time running, run more miles, run faster in my workouts, eat better, sleep better. You look at your entire life and learn to treat your body as a machine. How do you make this machine more perfect? Check everything, even the way you breathe.

As your races improve your mental state improves. There is no doubt that success begets success. When you finally believe totally in yourself, when everything has come together, when workouts that once were difficult have become easy and hard days of the past are no longer hard and you have moved to a higher plateau, then you are ready to test your rivals. Now you can compete.

That is the reason records continue to go down. Athletes continually test themselves against their rivals.  When they lose they realize they must train a little harder and a little smarter. They do that and beat their rivals and then someone else goes to a different level. It is a constant reaching for better training.

Isn’t it interesting that someone fifty years ago didn’t train like athletes of today who are setting world records. Why didn’t they take a quantum leap. Why didn’t they say to themselves, my training is ridiculous, I am going to increase the load four fold. They didn’t and therefore records continued to fall slowly. Of course we must remember running tracks and shoes have also helped to bring records down and we must put those items in proper perspective. (Take two seconds per lap from cinder track records over all-weather tracks.)

Getting back to the competitive side of racing, runners come to the race with different intensities. If we could measure the physical fitness of everyone in a race we would find several runners with near equal cardiovascular fitness. However one of these athletes would be able to beat the others most of the time.  Why? Because that person is able to concentrate on the race better than his rivals. And in many cases the athlete is able to push through discomfort better than the others.  That is a part of the race we never know. How do you measure how much discomfort the athlete is able to withstand. Many athletes will back off when they feel their bodies in that discomfort zone. Some are able to set the discomfort aside and continue pushing the body. That is not to say they don’t feel the pain, it is to say they have learned to deal with it.

Is it possible to train the athlete to accept more pain or is it a personality trait. It may be both. I have come across athletes who seem to have the natural ability to push their bodies to extremes. But at the same time I believe I have been able to train all my athletes to push harder in races. Learn to live with the pain. There have been times when I was so tired in races, trying to stay close to the leaders, I had fleeting thoughts that soon I would have to drop off the pace. But I was able to say, it will only hurt for a short time, two, three, four minutes is such a short time, don’t slow down, don’t back off.  There is no doubt there are runners who do not win, who run harder, enduring more discomfort, than the people who beat them. They are tougher psychologically, but have not placed their bodies into the same cardiovascular condition as those who beat them. Oh, I realize that on certain days there are other factors, but if we could rid ourselves of those factors the above would be true. Then, of course, we must remember genetics.

My point is then, that it is not enough to have the body in great cardiovascular condition. A top athlete must be able to concentrate totally on the task and have the ability to run through discomfort. It is the mental side of racing. Yes, some athletes are born with superior attributes (genes) and they will be able to get to the top if they are able to put the other two factors together. The tough competitor is one who can push through discomfort. A person who has the ability to put up with more pain than their competitors. All other factors being equal it is this person who will win the race.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>