Do you sulk if you lose a pub quiz? Have you ever kept going until you are sick in order to win an eating competition? Or passed out trying to hold your breath in a tunnel?
And what about parenting: are you one of those people screaming ‘kick it in the net, Tabitha’ at your daughter’s Saturday morning football club?
Competition exists in every part of life. We are called the human race. From an early age, we’re competing for the best seat on the school bus; competing to get a place at a top university; competing for promotion within the pyramid structures at most firms.
Competition is part of the rhythm of life and it’s a fundamental human thing to do. But does it bring out our best side, or our dark side?
The intensity of competition is what inspires us to breath-taking performances. Athletes don’t set world records on a blustery March morning in training, with a spectator and a dog for company. They set them in an Olympic final, roared on by 80 000 spectators and racing against the rest of the world.
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer don’t play their best tennis in the first round of a minor tournament. They only hit those heights in the fifth set of a Wimbledon final.
In the workplace, it’s the impending deadline which ramps up productivity; and the pitch to the big client will bring out the best teamwork far more than a regular Wednesday staring at a spreadsheet.
But is it possible to be too competitive; and to experience too much competition?
In life, we’re told to have everything in moderation. Yet in elite sport, it is perceived that moderation isn’t desirable. Obsession and extremes are the behaviours that are rewarded. We hear this in the marginal gains mantra that has made its way from sport across to the boardroom.
But the reality is different.
When researching my book Mind Games, a study of how mental skills are trained, not innate, time and again the elite athletes and coaches I interviewed told me they didn’t consider themselves particularly competitive. They cared deeply about doing their best, but that was a specific state of mind relative to the training session or the race. Once that was over, they turned it off.
You hear coaches saying they like competition for places on a sports team because it pushes everyone to be better.
I disagree. Sometimes you need to feel like you’re not under the microscope, and are left to simply do your job to the best of your ability.
More competition isn’t always better. There’s no linear relationship between competitiveness and success. It’s nuanced, complex and individual.
It’s possible to reach ‘peak competition’. Too much competition can throttle creativity. It can leave people on edge. It can retard collaboration.
Perhaps the answer is that we’re all different.
We all know people who don’t just want to be the best – they want to beat everyone else. They take particular pleasure in having ‘won’ a promotion at work, and will know who they ‘beat’ to get there.
Other people will be driven by the love of what they do, and how good they can be at it. We are all on a spectrum of how we are fuelled by competition.
What’s your competitive edge?
Annie Vernon is the author of Mind Games: Determination, Doubt and Lucky Socks: An Insider’s Guide to the Psychology of Elite Athletespublished by Bloomsbury Sport (2019), £16.99. Available in all major booksellers including Amazon: https://amzn.to/2oqDqa1