Competition: menace or motivator?

We’ve blogged about competition before. See  for example Sam’s post “Who’s the Competition? She Is?” and my posts “The Competitive Feminist: the bad, the ugly, and the good” and “Feeling unmotivated? Get competitive.”

I thought about competition again today because I had a great workout, spurred on by the competitive spirit. When I got to my personal training session, I felt tired and uninspired for my workout. But when my trainer Paul said that he’d given almost the same workout to Kim earlier in the day and she did it amazingly, I felt a little kick. I wanted to do at least as well as Kim!

As a result of that little nudge, I managed to crank out four sets of fifteen chest dips (at body weight, not on the gravitron) coupled with some pretty heavy barbell shoulder presses for my first round of exercises. If not for the spectre of Kim’s amazing workout (which, for all I know, Paul wasn’t even being wholly truthful about but I doubt it because she is a machine), I would have maxed out earlier on those dips I’m sure.

So this got me thinking about whether competition is a good thing, a bad thing, or what. If you look around the internet, there are at least three prevalent ways of thinking about competition.

Number one: you should compete only against yourself

This color photo depicts a saying in block letters in black and red on a white background with faded grainy corners: "Look in the mirror...that's your competition."

There’s a lot of this type of thing out there, about running your own race, improving only against your own self, and not being in competition with anyone else. But this misses out on a key idea that is also quite prevalent…

Number two: competition motivates.

Picture of a quote on a beige background that looks like faded paper with a brown water stain on the right edge. It says "It is nice to have valid competition; it pushes you to do better." Gianni Versace

This is what got me going today. A sense of competition, not sure if it was “valid,” made me give it that extra push. In the end I have no idea whether my workout was in any sense “better” than Kim’s. It didn’t even matter. Just knowing that I was trying to do as well or better made me do better than I otherwise would have. Is that healthy? Is that valid? I don’t know. But it worked for me today.

Number three: there is something wrong with competition.

Color photo of blue sky with clouds over snowy mountains overlaid with "Competition is a sin" in white letters, and "John D. Rockefeller" underneath. At the very bottom, on a black strip it says "Brainy Quote."

What could be wrong with competition? A related idea out there is that it brings out the worst in people, makes them want to crush other people, and is just basically not nice. Why do we need to be better than others to feel good about ourselves?

Another way of putting it is something like:

White text on black background says "A flower does not think of competing to the flower next it it. It just blooms." Uncredited.

The basic idea: be like that flower. Just do your thing.

I’ve asked this before and I’ll ask it again. What do you think about competition and how does it work in your life? Is it something you feel positive about or does it bring you down? Do you compete against yourself, others, or not at all?

9 thoughts on “Competition: menace or motivator?

    1. Yes– right now, I feel like my former self is my greatest obstacle/competitor. Setting aside my need to compete with past-younger-Catherine is a big challenge right now.

  1. LIke the blooming flower metaphor a lot. I used to be more competitive for myself and had my cyclometer. I ride a lot with my partner or solo. It’s just the way it is since I’m not keen on group rides / aka not comfortable cycling with many people around me.

    I/ve never found group rides in a competitive mode, motivating. It does the opposite and destroys the pleasure of a long ride.

    Right now at -15 degrees C or lower in winter, it’s just enough to get me out the door with my bike in the dark.

  2. I’m not a huge fan of competition, but I’m a huge fan of peer pressure, of the kind you got from Kim (even if she wasn’t there to cheer you on). I swim outdoors with a group of buddies. I would never have started, gone as great a distance, or swum as early and late into the season as I do, without our mutual egging on. I have gone from scared to do 2 km in the summer, to happily doing 8 km (10 km is my goal for this year), and swimming all year round outdoors (even if it is only for 75 m). This blooming flower loves the company of others to keep her going.

  3. Competition and comparison are too close for me.

    My life is fueled by tapas…my personal dedication to living in a way that feels good to me and that makes the world a nicer place. Sometimes that means having an extra cup of coffee to push my way through a hard, sweaty and challenging workout.
    Sometimes it means being ok to sit still.

    I really used to believe that I needed competition and fear to motivate myself into not being lazy. It turned out to not be true.

  4. It’s important especially for people who are already relatively healthy, to encourage others to “enjoy” (emphasis) first what they do in terms of regular exercise/fitness. Otherwise they will not continue it for years (I really mean this!) for overall health. I would never push the competition mode, except self-competition…or even better/more inclusive: self-monitoring in a relaxed (emphasis) mindset.

    Some of us already push ourselves in our jobs, schooling… as a form of “competition”/peer pressure.

    Am I stronger, faster than others as a cyclist? I don’t care. Am I healthy in a well-rounded way according to physician and lab tests? Yes, I care, this I really care and pay attention. And will do something about it if I need to.

    If you met me: I don’t work really hard every single day to look the way I do. I just don’t have a car….for past few decades. 🙂 No, it’s not genetics….it’s your entire lifestyle for the next few decades.

  5. i don’t care for competition considering the fact how disastrous it has been for the world for the last 37 years.

  6. I actually just read an article summarizing a study that found that women prefer competing against themselves, then against other women, and only last against men. Interesting idea.

    I’m definitely more toward the end of competing against myself. I’m *extremely* competitive, so unless I want to become the absolute best at something, it’s easier to just not care about competing.

  7. Great post, Tracy. I wrote a piece a while back for a Cycling and Philosophy popular culture volume on female and male bike racers and their different reports on competition. What I saw (in the race reports I read) was a trend of women learning from their competitors, seeing them as helpers in their development. The men’s reports described the other racers as obstacles to get around, markers to use to pace themselves, or challengers to their own race plans (e.g. get on podium, get in top 10). Of course this was one set of race reports, but I can relate to the idea of other women doing what I am doing playing the role of helpers, pacers, mentors, object lessons, etc. And when I’m in the superior position, they are surrogates for my former self and an opportunity for reflecting on that.

Comments are closed.