Competition, Esteem & Identity

To compete: to do something with the goal of outperforming others or of winning something (Webster). Everyone has varying psychological needs for competition. Many of us engage in athletic endeavors to express his or her competitive side. The excitement of competition, testing oneself, challenging oneself or others; feeds our competitive side.

Competing with oneself is one way to express competitiveness. For example, going further or faster than before, setting personal records on courses, establishing streaks (days run, miles per week run, annual miles, races without DNFing) are generally healthy expressions of athletics. These can be taken to extremes. For instance, streaking can be taken to extremes when one maintains streaks despite damage to one’s health or relationships. (I personally know someone who has run 25 plus years without a missed day and ran through a broken knee cap in order to continue his streak.)

Challenging others is fun and in a healthy adversarial relationship it can be the secret to breaking through to new levels of performance. It can also bolster our self-esteem (there always seems to be that person you just love to beat). Culturally and socially, much of the western world fosters competition, embraces competition and views it as healthy in “getting ahead” and even proving one’s worth. So, there is plenty of reinforcement for “winning”. It is a Darwinian approach to running – kill or be killed. It also puts our self-esteem at the mercy of others.

What happens when we don’t beat a certain person? What happens when we haven’t performed to a standard? What happens when we don’t achieve that dream goal? What happens when you are injured or retire and no longer have that competitive outlet anymore? These are critical questions. In extremes, the flipside of stirring us to new levels of accomplishment is that excessive competitiveness can have a drastically negative affect our self-esteem when we fail. We end up the victim of the Darwinian athletics. And worse yet many athletes tie their identities to their athletics. They are lost once they aren’t on top or simply leave their sport.

The issue isn’t a matter of expressing competitiveness even at the highest levels. It is a matter of how we perceive the outcomes. Giving it our “all” and staying focused and never giving up regardless of the situation in a race (or game) is the act of being competitive. Focus solely on the win or loss and breaking a record or not; is not a focus on competition but outcomes which we do not entirely control.

The next logical implication is what happens to us when there is a psychological void. What happens when it is taken away through injury, retirement or “life” schedules which prohibit this outlet? The key is to determine healthy options to channel your competitive energies. If this is not done successfully, athletes suffer from depression, anxiety and general feelings of being “lost” or unworthy. This however is not different than the person who defines himself or herself as his or her job. Egos tied to winning, being the best, rising to the top professionally lead us to an inevitably unhealthy path. Often professional counseling is the recommended route in getting through it all.

In less severe cases there are constructive options short of counseling.
• Stop and rejoice in your successes. Appreciate your efforts. When you think about others who cannot do what you do, indeed you are a fortunate one. You at least get to compete!
• Set process oriented goals. Focus on improving an aspect of your racing such as improving your kick, hill running, etc. By doing that you actually focus on very real aspects to improve your running which may yield even better results.
• Set goals and focus on controllable aspects of performance. You don’t control your competitor’s race. You don’t control the weather or the course or the mile markers. You do control your own effort.
• Reframe “losing”. “Failing” or “losing” terms assigned to your performance are negative labels. Reframe it to merely be a performance. The performance (time, place, etc.) is no more than feedback. This effort, on this course, in these conditions with that kind of training yielded these results. If I want different results, I need to change what I do. Got it?
• Put athletic performance in perspective with the rest of life. If the worst thing that happens to you is you lose a race, or lose to that certain someone, that’s not so bad! Does it really make you less of a person?
• Have a sounding board (confidant) to allow you to safely express your experiences. One way to dissipate negative feelings over loss, lack of improvement, etc. is to confide in someone. This person should be someone who will not judge your feelings. Instead, be an objective empathetic sounding board. In my experience, non-athletes often do not relate well to athletes and the importance we put (right or wrong) on our respective sports. So, consider well the person you wish to confide in.
• Develop a long term perspective. A loss today could afford you the opportunity to learn a new strategy to “win” next time out. The present day loss is only for today. Tomorrow is indeed another day.

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