fitness · Guest Post · running

Competitive streak (Guest post)

I work on the campus of a research institute with lots of scientists working round the clock to get out their next, hopefully highly-cited, paper, knowing full well that their career hinges on being faster, better, more hard-working than the person next door.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of these people aren’t just competitive in research, but in all aspects of their lives, including fitness. One colleague of mine referred to it as a “cesspool of incredibly fit people”. Personally, I’ve left research in favour of a career in research management. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a competitive streak of my own.

I exercise quite a lot, swimming, running, and bouldering mostly. I love hiking, kayaking, and surfing, although I don’t do much of the latter two these days, mostly for want of a large enough body of water nearby. I enjoy all of it immensely most of the time.

The problem is: I’m not good at any of it, or at least not what people generally define as “good”. I’m not strong, or fast, or well-coordinated. And I constantly compare myself to others.

The reason I mentioned my workplace before is that I sometimes go running with a group of colleagues at lunchtime. Our campus is located outside the city on a hill in the forest, which is perfect for that. Most of them are faster than me, in fact I’m frequently the slowest member of the group by some distance.

I boulder with a group of people a couple of times a week. Most of them can do harder routes than me, even the ones who have started bouldering later.

And in the pool, I compare myself to the people who are faster, not those who are slower. Every so often, I come home from exercising feeling frustrated and bitterly complain to my husband.

Why can’t I be better at sports? What’s the point of doing it if I won’t ever be any “good”? I like the social element of exercising in a group, but I can’t seem to stop comparing myself to others. And so my competitiveness sometimes gets in the way of my enjoyment.

I sometimes wonder if this is related to the way society expects women to give 150% in order to be considered “successful” (or even adequate). Or is it just my own personality? Am I intrinsically competitive, or have I been socialised to be that way, through the environment I grew up in and the academic training I’ve received?

As usual, the answer is probably “a bit of everything”. The thing is, in sports I don’t owe anyone anything. As long as I enjoy doing it, it shouldn’t matter if I’m any “good” at it. And yet.

So I’m interested: how do others cope with their own competitiveness? Does it affect your enjoyment of exercise if you work out with people who are better than you?

Bettina is a political scientist-turned-science-manager and feminist from Germany, where she now lives after stints in the UK and Spain. She enjoys sports, reading, food, and travelling.

Picture of Bettina in a green running shirt after completing an 8k race on New Year’s Eve 2017, during which she couldn’t stop comparing herself to other runners, but had fun nevertheless.

3 thoughts on “Competitive streak (Guest post)

  1. After years of trying to prove I am better than I am, and being disappointed and frustrated, I have found truth in the saying comparison is the thief of happiness.
    I only choose activities I love and I do them as best I can when I do. Mostly yoga, as it is a constant reminder that I can only be myself. That I only want to be myself.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve never been the best at physical activities, so maybe my expectations are not so high that I feel that bad when I’m not “good enough”. Mostly, I focus on being better than I was the last time, and not getting discouraged when I have setbacks. Also, I prefer team sports to one-on-one competition, where I can be just one part (and hopefully not the weakest) of a whole effort.


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