Get out a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left side, list all the positive things that you have experienced through competing (whether in sports, in school, in business, in politics, etc.). These might include things like fun, excitement, challenge, camaraderie, and pride. On the right side, list the negative things that you’ve encountered in contests. These may include such internal things as stress and anxiety, as well as external behaviors, such as fighting, cheating, lying, and so forth. Then ask yourself this: Why does competition sometimes lead to such positive experiences and sometimes to such negative outcomes?
Some people believe that competition goes awry when people get carried away; when they become too competitive. Problems arise, so it is said, when people want to win “at any cost.” There’s an element of truth to these statements. Still, they are more myth than reality. And it’s a myth perpetuated by the media, such as sport broadcasters, who are fond of praising people’s competitiveness until something ugly happens; then they blame the guilty party for being overly competitive.
From years of working with athletes and coaches, I’ve come to a different conclusion about the sources of the problems that too frequently mar competition. Here’s the key idea in a nutshell: There are two very different ways to think about the whole meaning, purpose, goal, and value of competition. Each of these two ways has its own very distinctive (and highly predictable) characteristics and consequences. One of these two ways leads to such outcomes as excellence and enjoyment. The other will not always result in cheating, antagonism, and corruption but will, nonetheless, open the door to these negative outcomes. Unfortunately, most people are unaware that there is more than one way to think about competition. “Isn’t it just trying to beat other people?” Not really.
The first way, which we call “true competition,” is based on the original meaning of the word. Please bear with me for a moment as I get just a little academic. The term “competition” comes from Latin roots and literally means “to strive with.” Importantly, it does not mean “to strive against,” but rather to strive with. Competition involves striving with your opponent. In true competition, the contest enables all who participate to push themselves toward excellence. When we are true competitors, the challenge provided by a worthy opponent, and the effort we exert to try to win, are valued because they help us reach the boundaries of our capacities. True competition is mutually beneficial to all who participate. Everyone gains through pursuing excellence, and by experiencing the enjoyment that comes through vigorously pursuing a worthy goal. Sure, winning is more fun. But win or lose, we gain.
The second way, which we call “decompeitition” (short for decomposed competition), is antithetical to the actual meaning of the word. Rather than “striving with,” decompetition comes when we “striving against.” Decompetitors see competition as a miniature war. They see their opponents as enemies. The goal is reduced to conquering over others. While the gulf between “striving with” and “striving against” may be experienced in a variety of quiet and subtle ways, it is still an immense chasm as wide as it is important.
Most people exhibit both tendencies to some extent. We may vacillate between being true competitors and being decompetitors. But our failure to recognize that these are really two quite different, quite distinct, processes has limited our ability to understand when, why, and how negative behaviors occur in contest settings. Of course, in this short article, I can only hint at the profound differences between them and how to gain control over the mental processes at work. But I will conclude with an essential point.
If you are interested in doing your very best, if you are interested in peak performance, and if you desire to sustain your enthusiasm and enjoyment, then true competition is a far more reliable path to get you there. There’s an old locker-room mythology that “nice guys finish last,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Thinking of the contest as a miniature battle promotes distracted thinking, lack of consistent focus, unreliable motivation patterns, undesirable stresses, and lack of adequate impulse control. True competition not only builds on sound ethics, it results in excellence of performance.