By Shana Johnstone
The comparison trap is a difficult mindset to be stuck in. I hear it all the time in my gym community—folks not satisfied with their progress because it doesn’t match someone else’s. I also hear it in my own head. I hear my inner dialogue as it compares the barbell I lift to the amount my friend can pull, and I feel my self-worth increase or decrease with how much—or how fast, far, long, or many—I can do. And I’m sick of it.
Rationally, I know that seeing my fitness as a competition with others is a reliance on outside factors and external validation to feel good about myself, and I’m slowly talking myself out of this mindset. I’m paying more attention to my inner voice and deliberately disrupting the dialogue with a new set of messages.
I’ve learned that how I talk to myself matters, and so I have started a practice of drafting pep talks. I like this practice because it encourages me to dig into some of the finer points of comparison and competition, and by writing to “you” (who is you that is reading this but also is me in the mirror) I can develop and order my thoughts in a considered, deliberate way. How we speak to others can be so much more compassionate—and, also, more objective—than how we speak to ourselves, and I’ve found this approach helpful to busting out of—or at least putting some serious holes into—the need to compare and compete.
What Is Competition?
Before we get into reconstructing our mindset around fitness, let’s consider the characteristics of competition.
A competition is a contest in which there are winners and losers. At its core, competition is a comparative exercise. Someone comes out on top. Sport is competition; fitness is not.
In sport, we determine a winner or a ranking of the top few. Someone is identified, as objectively as possible, as the fastest, the strongest, or the most skilled. Validation comes from others; it is external to the self. The point is to win.
The pursuit of sport and the pursuit of fitness are fundamentally different. In fitness, there is no finish line, no award ceremony, and no gold star. Validation is found internally, from meeting your own needs. The point of fitness is to be able to participate.
This doesn’t mean that fitness is easy. In fact, it’s often harder than sport. Without the clear parameters of winning, how do we know when we achieve it? Without agreed-upon rules of engagement, how do we know we’re doing it right? And perhaps most confusing, without competition, what drives us?
By shifting how we think about fitness away from competition and toward participation we open ourselves up to so many more benefits beyond just the physical.
Fit for What?
Can you identify the exact criteria for fitness? Few can agree on what to measure, never mind the thresholds required, so don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to pin down. Part of the issue is identifying the fitness objective—what is it being used for?
My fitness objectives are likely different from yours, and yours are likely different from your neighbour’s. For example, I’m currently fit to care for myself, do basic maintenance around my home, carry my groceries, walk around town or hike through the forest, go ocean paddleboarding, and learn new gymnastic skills. In other words, my fitness matches my objectives. I have other objectives that I’m also working towards, and my fitness is moving in that direction. Should my objectives change, I would likely work to alter my fitness accordingly.
But I’m a competitive athlete, you say. Well, do you want to run hurdles, or long-distance cycle, or execute a tumbling routine, or fence, or play rugby? Great! Are the fitness requirements the same for each sport? Are you working on fitness specific to your objectives?
There’s no bar for fitness, nor should there be. Fitness is not an absolute. There is only the ability to do the thing you want to do, at the level you want to do it at.
When you picture yourself as a fit person, what activities are you doing? If you’re already doing those activities, mission accomplished. If you’re on the path to making it happen, mission accomplished also. Everything—everything—is a progression.
It’s All About You
Your situation is unique. Really, it is. Hear me out.
Your physical fitness and the mindset you bring to it are specific to you and your personal history. What you can do with your body, right now, is a manifestation of that lived experience.
The variables are infinite. Blow out your knee ten years ago? Recovering from a major illness? Not sleeping well or working eighteen-hour days? Your mental and emotional stressors are just as significant and combine with the physical to create the you of this moment.
This is the you that is capable of what you can do right now.
Does it make sense to compare your work-, family-, or injury-related stress to someone else’s? No? Then why would you compare your one-rep max of anything?
How about this: if you and I were to compare our fitness in a contest of shoe-tying, would it matter who wins? If it doesn’t then tell me why it matters that you lift more than me or I run faster than you. Each of us can do what we can do and it’s irrelevant to compare.
But there is a place where our unique situations are indeed relevant to others. We all experience challenges, sometimes small and niggling, sometimes devastating. And we all experience successes, be they fast and fleeting or sticky and triumphant. Though incomparable, our experiences are what allow us to relate to each other. Comparison is pointless, but empathy is gold.
Sport is competitive, as are many other things—a game of chess, a spelling bee, a job opening, an audition, the last seat on your bus-ride commute. What do all of these have in common? There is a winner and there are those who . . . didn’t win. The reward is limited to one, sometimes to a few. The system is based on scarcity.
For many of us, the competitive mindset is in our blood. We feel driven to lift heavier and move faster than those around us. We want that personal best. We want to “catch up” to our friends who can do more than we can. We want to regain a skill, a speed, a body we once had because we think we used to be a better version of ourselves.
We’re comparing a past or an imagined future to where we are now and judging our current selves lacking, less worthy than before or not yet enough.
Your fitness doesn’t exist in a system of scarcity. It is available to you now, or later, whenever you decide to strive for it and regardless of who else is working on theirs. There’s no podium and no limitation on who can have it, how much you can have, when you can have it, or how long you can have it for. There is no competition—it just doesn’t exist.
Moreover, you don’t live in the past or the future. You live in the now. So how are you not enough? You are, literally, everything.
In the land of fitness there is infinite room, space for all, enough for everyone.
It’s okay if you see something that someone else has and want it for you, too.
Maybe you see a stranger climb a local pitch, or your friend completes a Gran Fondo with style, or someone at your gym has a two-pull rope climb.
You might feel . . . jealousy. It might be hard to admit, but there it is. It’s no surprise, really. We’re taught to compare ourselves to others. We expect to compete for limited resources. We learn that there are winners at the expense of losers and that the rewards go those at the top. But with fitness there is no competition. You can have it too.
Here’s the important bit: your response to others’ achievements paves the way for your own. If you celebrate the success of others, you’re saying yes to that success for yourself, too, whether it be now or in the future. None of us exists in a vacuum. Your support of others matters—to them, to a future you, and to everyone else who wants to succeed. It creates an environment where we all can strive and where more is possible.
Likewise, if you put down the success of others, you’re saying that you’re not interested in that achievement for yourself. You are, in effect, saying that the achievement has no value—not for you or anyone else. This creates an environment of apathy.
If, by watching your peers increase their fitness, you discover a sharp desire to handstand, increase your bench, or row a lightning-fast 2k, channel that motivation into your training. Now you have a goal and the drive to make it happen. Go get it! Your achievement won’t supplant someone else’s. But do this first: cheer on the person who is inspiring you.
BIO: Shana Johnstone is an editor and writer who lifts, learns, and loves in Vancouver, BC.