The Paradox of Competition: It Either Raises Your Game or Causes You To Quit


While watching the Olympic Trials in track and field, I am always struck by a performance contrast. On one hand, you have the athletes who are in the mix, competing to make the final or even be on the Olympic team. They raise their game, pulling off incredible performances. But then if you glance back, you see the other side of the coin: the athlete whose dream slips away. They go from being in the mix to falling apart. Trudging through to the finish line at a speed nowhere near their potential.

Competition can raise your game. But it can also cause you to underperform.

This may seem obvious, but in order for competition to raise your game, you need to have a shot. That shot could mean winning overall, setting a new personal best, or achieving some intrinsic goal. Whether it’s in running or in working on your next quarterly report, when you have a shot to meet your goal, your motivation increases, your self-belief rises, and you are able to get everything out of your mind and body that you can. Put simply: you perform best when you are in the mix. In fact, being slightly behind but still being in the mix may be even better than being ahead. A study on more than 45,000 NCAA basketball games found that teams behind by one point at halftime win more often than teams that are slightly ahead.

On the other hand, if achieving your goal slips away, you are more likely to spiral toward doubt and negativity. Poor performance soon follows. It is as if your body and mind are saying, “This effort isn’t worth it if we aren’t going to win”; so it shuts us down. This is one reason why you need to set appropriate goals and also compete against others who are within the ballpark of your skill level. Researchers studied the performance of students taking a class. When average students were exposed to the work of the best students in the class, they were more likely to give up and quit the course. They were discouraged, unable to measure up to their high achieving peers. In other words, they didn’t have a shot.

But having a shot isn’t the only thing that matters. Your motivation influences the decision-making process. When assessing why cyclists dropped out of races, researchers discovered two important findings. First, men drop out of races more than women. Second, this is likely because women have higher levels of intrinsic motivation and different goal orientation. Those who dropped out had higher levels of ego orientation; they were focused on winning or performing better than their peers, while those who stayed in the race had higher levels of task orientation; they were focused on putting forth their best effort.

As you can now see, it is not as simple as the old saying competition raises your game. Sometimes, it causes you to quit. To maximize your chance at raising your game, be sure to:

  1. Set appropriate and multiple goals.
  2. Define your comparison point.
  3. Align your motivation with your definition of success.


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