Written for Sweat Magazine.
If you’ve ever looked into an athlete’s eyes at the bottom of the ninth/last quarter/third example of sports vernacular, you’ve probably seen it: The drive. The desperation. The unflinching impetus to win by any means possible.
It can be hard to watch the brutal tackles, wall slams and petty trips without sometimes wondering whether or not it’s all in the name of good fun.
Does a lifelong commitment to besting your fellow humans change the way your brain works? And is that a good thing?
“Competition can be important in terms of motivation, but it does depend on the goals you are pursuing in the sport,” says Martin S. Hagger, a Distinguished Professor at both Curtin University in Australia and University of Jyväskylä in Finland.
“Scientists think that people generally pursue two types of goals. Those that are personal, self-referenced, and focused on ‘bettering yourself’ (mastery goals) and those that are other-oriented, externally-referenced, and focused on ‘bettering others’ (performance goals). Those pursuing performance goals will aim to do better than the rest, beat an opponent, or achieve a standard set by other e.g. winning a race, coming in the top ten etc. Performance goals can be very motivating, especially when you achieve the goal e.g. win, get in the top ten, or get very close.”
Hagger, also the Editor at the Health Psychology Review, says difficulties arise when an athlete’s expectations don’t match up with the reality of their abilities.
“The problem comes when it is the only goal and one falls short of that goal (by a long-ish way),” explains Hagger.
“This may be through unrealistic expectations, or in the face of vastly superior opposition. Whatever the reason, failure or expected failure may often mean that the athletes sees no route to success and may desist or avoid the sport altogether in fear of failing again. Or the athlete may even deliberately ‘choke’ or self-handicap so that they have an ‘excuse’.”
Dr. Carla Edwards, Founder and Chief Sport Psychiatrist at Synergy Sport and Mental Health, is torn on the subject.
“Competitiveness can be a double-edged sword. In a positive sense, the drive to be the best can be adaptive and greatly rewarded in some occupations. It can provide an impetus to continue to strive for excellence, and maintain personal standards that drive individual reward systems,” says Edwards.
It’s not all good news, though. For players as driven as these, personal relationships can take a backseat to their ego.
“In a negative sense, an extreme need to be ‘the best at all costs’ can come with a steep price. To be the victor in everything (inside and outside of the athletic arena) can alienate friendships, compromise ethics, and have a strong influence on parenting style. Children of these individuals also adopt the same approach, and may feel that the only way to win the love and approval of their parent is to win at all costs. Romantic relationships also commonly fall victim to ultra-competitiveness, as the athlete’s need to ‘do whatever it takes to be the best’ forces the relationship into a lower priority state.”
Edwards maintains that competitiveness is still, broadly speaking, a good thing.
“It can significantly enhance a person’s overall health and wellbeing, as long as it is balanced and coexistent with other traits that allow the athlete to be adaptive and have a sense of ‘big picture’ awareness. To be strictly competitive without this balance and awareness can strip a perpetual victor of the most important elements of life.”
For Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach, an executive board member at the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (as well as a sport coaching scientist and a USA Cycling Elite Coach), the answer has to do with what she calls the “expert brain” versus the “novice brain”.
“Physical activity is not a physical activity alone. Participation has an important impact cognitively as well, and appears to have a positive effect on the health of the brain; not just the body,” says Dieffenbach.
“The short answer is yes, there is some evidence to suggest that the expert brain is functioning differently than the novice brain as a result of the training and adaption that occur over time. There is research to suggest that changes may occur in the ‘expert brain’ and how the ‘expert brain’ interprets signals and information.”
Dieffenbach suggests that high-caliber athletes aren’t looking at the same things as the rest of us when facing certain challenges.
“For example, while an expert batter in baseball will of course look at and assess things differently than a novice batter, they are also processing the information they receive differently than the novice hitter. There is research to suggest that changes may occur in what the elite level athlete looks at, how they process that information through the adaptation that occurs over time due to deliberate practice,” she says.
Young athletes in particular have more trouble coping with the daily grind.
In a chapter from the Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport, Ashley Stirling, (Ph.D. Director of Experiential Education at the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto) and Gretchen Kerr (Ph.D. Vice Dean of Academic Affairs at the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education) recall a 1975 study that “…identified excessive levels of pressure and stress on young athletes to perform and to win as contributing to low self-esteem and attrition from sport.
The report also notes that many of these issues can stem from how elite players see themselves.
“Substantial concerns have also been expressed about the singular identity that often develops with young, elite athletes and the implications that potentially arise from this one-dimensional identity.”
In some cases, this single-mindedness and the tension it creates can lead the more at risk players to see any scuff on their track record as grounds for self-punishment.
“The extensive commitments to sport required at elite levels necessitate exclusion from other activities and relationships, thus making young athletes more vulnerable to social isolation and difficulties coping with threats to their athletic identity such as performance set-backs and slumps, injuries, and retirement from sport.”
Dr. Dieffenbach says in extreme cases, setting the bar too high can cause competitors to shut down completely.
“The same traits that help an athlete (and I stress any driven individual, in or out of sport) be successful can also be an Achilles’ heel. Having high expectations can drive efforts, unless the athlete gets too focused on perfection – in which case this unattainable state of being can be crippling.”
Diane M. Culver, Ph.D. Associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics, feels the best remedy for struggling athletes is for mentors keep their behaviour in check.
“I think that sports can be very valuable as a tool to learn life skills if they are conducted in a positive environment and if coaches and others (parents, etc.) actually teach life skills to athletes,” she says.
“For example, teaching athletes how to lose and how to work hard can support competitive behaviours, but can also be positive.”
Culver reminds us, however, that it’s ultimately up to players to keep a sense of perspective about the game.
“Coaches must help athletes accept the goal of self-acceptance. Try your best and learn from errors, but don’t have your personal self-worth tied up with your competitive results. Basic sport psychology: you cannot control the performance of others, you can only control your actions and reactions.”