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.