Three Kinds of Competition

Originally posted over at the Four Elements Blog.

As someone who’s played a lot of sports, I have a lot of respect for competition. It’s a motivating factor in our training—we all want to get better as athletes, and have a healthy drive to surpass those we are competing against. In both team sports and individual competitions, the drive to succeed fuels us to achieve higher and loftier goals. This is an awesome thing.

The first kind of competition is the one we learn when we’re just starting out, and it’s the easiest to understand: competition between us and others. In order to beat the other team or win a tournament, you have to perform better than they do. This pushes us to really give it our all, and makes us stronger athletes. Often, there can be two layers to this kind of competition as well—competing against our own teammates to get a place on the all-star roster, and then the game against the other team or opponent as well. When approached in a healthy way, this kind of competition can be very motivating and even fun.

As you get further into training, the second kind of competition comes into play. This is competition against oneself. Can we improve our times, our skills, our mastery of the sport we love? How can we maximize our training to ensure that we’re continuing to achieve personal records, better times, and higher weights than our past selves? This kind of competition can be even more motivating, because you focus less on external factors outside your control, and more on your own growth and achievement as an athlete.

If you’re an athlete, this is all pretty familiar, right?

The third kind, if you can call it that, is where things start to get a little unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable. The third kind of competition is non-competition.

This sounds kinda nuts but bear with me here. It’s a paradox—how can a kind of competition be non-competitive?

Sometimes in our training, we need to take a step back and purposefully and intentionally opt-out of competition. Illness, injury, rehab, or exhaustion can all take us out of a place where competition is healthy and good for us. I’m working through a shoulder injury that’s putting me on the sidelines from all pushing movements—no overhead lifts, bench presses, or push-ups for me, for probably a considerable amount of time. As much as I want to compete with my fellow lifters, to put big numbers up on the whiteboard, and better times, it’s just not possible if I want to heal.

I also can’t compare myself with previous versions of me—past times, lifts, or performance. I’m not the same as I was 6, 12 or 24 months ago. And that’s frustrating, because I feel groundless. There’s no familiar guidepost, no benchmark, no direction to orient my progress, really.

But non-competitiveness serves a purpose: it allows you to really focus in on healing, without getting recurrent bouts of re-injury or sickness. Even if you’re not sick or injured, everyone needs downtime. All professional sports have an off season.
I think it’s a lot harder for those of us who are not professionals to take that time for ourselves. It’s harder to justify. “Well, I’m not working at the level that so-and-so is, so I don’t deserve to take a break.”

The problem with this kind of thinking is that the body never has time for adequate recovery. Sometimes you just need a few rest days, but sometimes you may need weeks or months off your sport. And that’s really hard. I know. I’m dealing with that right now. But it’s vital.

So what takes the place of competition? I’d venture to say that goals are an appropriate answer—just different kinds of goals. Instead of focusing on outcomes—a personal record, a better time, a higher ranking—choose to narrow in on behaviors instead. Make a recovery plan for yourself, and mark off how many times you do mobility exercises, or rehab, or conditioning, or even much needed rest. Feel good about that.

It’s hard to do, and I’m in the thick of it myself, but see how it goes for awhile. Test it out. The likelihood is that you’ll be able to return to your sport with increased awareness, motivation, and ability.