Competing With (Instead of Always Against)


“Can we have two golds?”

After clearing every height on their first attempts all the way up to 7 feet, 9 and a quarter inches, 2020 Olympians Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi were tied for the lead in the high jump. They both failed to clear 7’10” three times in a row, meaning the deadlock still stood.

Who was going to win the Olympic Gold? In 2016, Tamberi missed the Olympics due to a serious Achilles injury. The cast he was wearing during the Rio Olympics sat beside him as he jumped in Tokyo. A reminder of how far he’d come. Barshim is one of the greatest high jumpers in history. He won silver in London and Rio, and had two world championship golds to round out his haul. He also missed the entire 2018 season because of an ankle injury.

As they ended the competition tied, the referee approached to discuss a jump-off to decide the winner. In the sort of high-jump, a jump-off occurs via dropping the height 1cm every jump until a winner emerges. As the referee begins to ask about a jump-off, Barshim asks “Can we have two golds?” The referee replies, “It’s possible.”

At that moment, Tamberi and Barshim erupt in celebration. You can see the emotional weight lift and the two fierce competitors pure joy and elation come out.

For those asking how could they just decide not to break a tie? It’s a unique aspect of the high jump. It’s literally in the rules: that if there is a tie for the win, the athletes may choose not to commence with a jump-off. They both can choose to “retire,” thus leaving the results where they are.

This was the moment of the Olympics for me. Two athletes who have competed against each other for a long time chose to share Gold. They put their egos aside, not needing to be the sole king of the mountain. And instead shared the victory. It should be noted, this isn’t some moment of everyone getting a medal, this was two of the best high jumpers in the world, battling and ending with the same best jump of over 7 feet and 9 inches, with the same number of misses. They earned gold. And when it came down to it, they decided they both deserved to win, as the rules of their sport allowed it.

This is the essence of what sport is all about. Competition that lifts one another up. Too often we see competition as a zero-sum game, a clear winner and loser is a must. But what occurred in the high jump points to something far greater. As we outlined in Peak Performance, if we can put our ego aside, we actually free ourselves up to perform to our best ability. Our ego often pushes us to perform out of a place of fear, of needing to show the world that I’m good enough. When we can let go of that noise, and realize that competition is about getting the most out of ourselves, we can fulfill our potential. In a paradoxical twist, the research suggests that the less we think about ourselves, the better we become.

When we have someone to physically or psychologically share the load, everything seems a bit more manageable, a bit more doable, a bit less threatening. When we feel secure and supported, the way in which we see the world changes. The world looks a little less threatening and a little more conquerable when we have others in our corner.

Barshim and Tamberi were duking it out, trying to perform their best to become the best in the world. When their best on that day ended in clearing the same heights with the same exact misses, they didn’t let their egos get in the way. They realized that on that day, they both were the best in the world. If your inclination is to get angry, to scream, There can only be one winner, when the rules clearly show that’s not the case, go back and watch the high jump again. What you’ll see is two athletes striving for greatness in their pursuit, but then erupting in joy when it just so happens that their best was the same on that day.

There’s one more lesson that Barshim and Tamberi showed us: Often, we mythologize athletes with a “killer instinct,” athletes who will do almost anything to win. Here’s an instance of doing everything you can to try to win during the competition, but immediately flipping the humanity switch back on once the competition is over. Two of the best in the world — and one of the best in history at his sport — showing that you don’t need to walk around with some misguided chip on your shoulder to be extraordinary. You can be the best in the world, a fierce competitor and a human with care for your competitors at the same time.

If the world worked like Barshim and Tamberi it would be a better place.

Strive for greatness, but appreciate competition and your competitors. Be secure enough in your sense of self that you can share your greatest moment with a rival, let celebrating with them be part of the magic of competing.

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