As an endurance coach, I often hear from athletes that they “aren’t competitive,” as if they’re describing something similar to being ugly or selfish. Let’s clarify a few things about being competitive.
First of all, I’m still not sure why “being competitive” has somehow become a negative label. Consider this: At some point in the past, there was a man and/or a woman potentially competing for one another’s affection, which in turn created a relationship, which in turn is the reason you are alive today.
Competition is a part of being a healthy human. The problem is the meaning that we assign to the competitive behavior and the method in which it’s executed.
Secondly, competitiveness doesn’t only refer to sports. Know that person who has to always be doing better than everyone else? That’s a type of competition as well. Devastated that you lost the parking space at King Soopers? Yep, competition, and most likely about something else, not the parking space. What about your friend who always comes to your BBQs and has to top everyone’s story with a story that’s wilder and crazier? Yep, and I think you know that example goes deeper than the surface.
Sports and “Doing Epic Shit”
There are different rules at play in life and on the playing field, and you are allowed and expected to adopt different behaviors for each. For example, in a race or other type of endurance event, like a Gran Fondo—if you are choosing to actually race, go fast, and/or see how quickly you can ride the entire thing—you might adopt more aggressive behaviors to keep your place. But when you go to the grocery store, (hopefully) you choose to let that behavior go and chill out. So you can see, different behavior rules apply in different settings, and you can turn it on or off depending on the situation.
The more pressing issue is that there are healthy forms of competition and unhealthy forms of competition. So often in life, it is not so much what you’re doing, but the “place” you are coming from when you are doing that thing. Since we are talking about humans, there never has been and never will be a black-and-white answer. So, let’s delve into this gray. (Oh yeah, we’re going to engineer the shit out of this! Because that’s what coaches do!)
What’s Your Why?
People generally don’t do things for just one reason. In fact, we usually have a set of reasons for doing something: We want to buy the pants because they are cute, but that alone usually isn’t a good enough reason. So if we have two additional reasons—they are on sale and they make our butt look good—then we essentially “sell” the permission to ourselves to get them!
The same concept comes into play when we are thinking about doing a big event. We might think it sounds enticing to try to finish the Garmin Unbound, but if we don’t have at least a few other reasons, then we most likely won’t do it. So, a set of reasons that resonates specifically with you results in better success in the long run. For example, your reasons for doing the Unbound might be because it sounds hard and you want a personal challenge, you also want to exercise almost every day, and you’ve never challenged yourself before.
There are literally dozens of reasons and different angles you can operate from when making decisions in life—the determining factor is the set of unique reasons that resonate with you.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Competition
Here are a few examples of types of behavior so we can break this issue down into its parts. Chances are you can identify with one or more of the unhealthy competition behaviors. That’s OK! Recognizing it is the first step. You can shift only your mindset when you are aware of it. It’s simple (but not necessarily easy). Where’s your head at about it? What “place” are you coming from? Check yourself!
1. Healthy competition:
Seeing a rider on the trail ahead of you and using that rider as a source of focus and motivation to push yourself a little harder and improve your fitness. Easily letting it go and not assigning any meaning to it if they pull farther and farther away from you.
Seeing a rider on the trail ahead of you and thinking that the rider “looks fat or slow” and therefore you should be able to catch up to them because you are “not fat or slow.” Self-deprecating thoughts and loss of enjoyment result if you cannot, in fact, catch up to them.
2. Healthy competition in regards to self:
You know that you can get complacent about things. You like to relax (which is good, too!) but for you, relaxation snowballs into full-on being lazy. So, in a way, you have two aspects of yourself: one that likes to move and be fit and the other that embraces being stationary. (By the way, we all do!) The part of you that wants to relax and hit the “easy button” is competing with the part of you that wants to be active, healthy, and enjoy the rewards that come with that type of lifestyle. Sometimes, it’s pretty obvious that the relaxing side needs to share space in your life as well. Each has their place and will compete with one another at different times in a balanced, active lifestyle.
Unhealthy competition in regards to self:
Those two sides mentioned above compete with each other and then the “lazy” side wins, and you beat yourself up over it and self-loathing sets in, leading to more feelings of worthlessness and more inactivity and/or substance abuse or whatever else. You can’t fully relax when you know you need to relax, because you haven’t accepted that you actually need to relax and label it as “being lazy.” You’ve got to choose one and choose it with confidence. Again, another part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
3. Healthy competition behavior and/or desire to complete a long endurance race:
Choosing to do an event or race because you want to see what you are capable of and you actually enjoy riding your bike for a long time. You find yourself wondering how far you can go, and potentially how fast you could do it. Hard rides make you feel good and you enjoy the process!
Unhealthy competition behavior and/or desire to complete a long endurance race:
Choosing to do a race because you want to look a certain way to a certain peer group or person. You find yourself wondering if your performance is good enough for “standards,” either spoken or implied, set by someone else. When you achieve your goal and finish your event, you feel a sense of disappointment that you can’t quite put your finger on.
4. Healthy motivations for choosing to do hard endurance events:
I want to focus on a difficult goal to explore that aspect of my life and self. I know that growth happens outside of my comfort zone. Plus, doing these epic rides makes going into the office seem so much less stressful. I can handle the irate customer when I know that I climbed Lookout Mountain or jumped off that big rock and had a solid landing this weekend!
Unhealthy motivations for choosing to do hard endurance events:
You are unhappy with yourself and want to do something hard to prove (to yourself or others) that you are worth something. With every event completed, satisfaction is fleeting.
5. Healthy post-event behavior:
You know you could’ve gone harder in a few spots or dialed in your technical skills better for a few sections in the event. You look forward to improving those things and others. There is personal enjoyment of the process, including failures and successes. You “high-five” your friend who had an outstanding performance and then enjoy a toast and celebration while everyone talks about the event.
Unhealthy post-event behavior:
You are sad and upset because nothing turned out how you wanted it to. You forget that there’s a process at hand and that you’ve likely gained substantial fitness from simply participating in the event because you are so caught up in disappointment with yourself. You don’t even hang out with your friends after because you are so upset.
If you find it challenging to operate from a set of healthy motivations, and you find yourself sinking to your “lower self,” there’s a good chance that there’s some type of mindset barrier that needs to be addressed. Because of the intensity and dedication required, it’s common for sport and fitness to be a place where these types of things come to the surface, and it’s normal for many people to find themselves there when pursuing high levels of fitness or skill in sport. This is why sport and fitness are so conducive to personal transformation.
Working with a coach that also specializes in mindset can help pave a successful path forward for you, including goal setting, getting your head straight about your why, and if needed, help with implementing mindset tools for course correction all along your fitness journey.
Talitha Vogt is a certified endurance and behavior change coach with an elite racing background. She has 22 years of experience as a mountain biker, including 13 total years of racing and other endurance events including Xterra triathlons, innumerable cyclocross races, a little dabbling in road racing, and even some trail running. She provides custom-tailored, accommodating coaching locally in the front range of Colorado and online internationally.