A friend of mine recently spent a long while out injured after an epic sprint finish in the last straight, resulting in an actual tussle with the other runner as they both fell over the line together. The finish line in question? parkrun. The other runner? A 10 year old child. This is what happens when you get overly competitive.
Another person I know, who is a very good runner, told me a story about how he was ‘winning the 5k Santa Run’, but he fell over and ended up second. He was gutted. Now, many of us like a good smackdown, but have you ever let your competitive spirit get out of hand?
The TrainAsONE team, as you can imagine, has its fair share of competitive people. Grant Vernon admits to taking on a small child on a bike while out running recently. He says the child goaded him into it (really, Grant?) and it resulted in an ‘impromptu interval session’. Then he had to run further than planned to put some clear distance between them. Is this healthy competition?
In a possibly even more disturbing tale Elsey Davis had to spend a while aqua jogging because of an injury. But just because she wasn’t running didn’t mean that her competitive spirit had waned. Oh no, when an old man (floating along on a noodle) challenged her to a race she says ‘I almost drowned several other elderly swimmers with the waves I made ensuring I won’.
This competitive spirit can also spill out into everyday life. Taz Anwar admits to actually cheating to beat people. Admittedly, these people are her own children and the cheating involved is ensuring she can just see through the blindfold when playing ‘pin the tail at the donkey’, but still, it shows a deeply competitive spirit. Though Taz does concede that she will allow her kids the odd win at Connect 4 or noughts and crosses to stop their tears. But, to be honest, she didn’t sound that happy about it!
Jane Hardacre also admits to being competitive in board games with her children, and also in the gym, running and just about everything else in life.
Robbie Britton once ran a small marathon and the lead passed between him and another runner the whole way through. The other runner suggested finishing together, Robbie tentatively agreed, before sprinting to the finish line for the win.
I’m saying that the TrainAsONE team ‘admitted’ to this behaviour, but they actually took very little encouragement and seemed darn right proud of crushing other runners and their own children. The competitive spirit is strong here!
But what are you competitive about? Is it a PB, is it beating your previous time for an event, is it winning, is it beating a particular athlete? Gill and Deeter (1998) developed the Sport Orientation Questionnaire to measure achievement motivation within competitive situations. It measures competitiveness (people who seek out competition and are motivated to succeed in competition), win-oriented people (whose aim is to beat others, rather than increase their own performance) and goal-oriented people (who focus on improving their own performance and measure success by their own standards). Which of these sounds most like you?
Is there a healthy sort of competition and an unhealthy sort? And is it always a good thing for your running? As early as 1898 psychologist Norman Triplett found that athletes respond very differently to competition. Some performed better in the face of competition (he experimented with unpaced and paced cycling races) and some actually performed worse (he called it ‘going to pieces’). For every Christine Ohuruogu, who famously thrived at the high pressure big championships, there’s a runner who experiences competitive anxiety which affects their performance negatively.
The ability to manage the pressure of competition can be a big factor in the success of your race. In the excellent book ‘Sport Psychology’ by Lavalee, Kremer, Moran and Williams they sum it up simply as ‘sport performers need to know how and when to either ‘psych themselves up’ or ‘calm themselves down’ in competitive situations’. They discuss all the different factors that can cause anxiety in athletes, such as importance of the result, perfectionism and fear of failure, and then suggest strategies for dealing with the anxiety and, where possible, turn it into a positive.
One of the coping strategies they describe is simulation training, where anxiety-provoking situations are simulated in training sessions. The example they use is Michael Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman, who ‘deliberately broke Phelps’s goggles during practice races so that he could learn to swim without them if they were damaged during a competitive event.’ And it turns out that this situation did actually happen to Phelps during the 2008 Olympics! I’m wondering what the running version of this might be. Sabotaging your trainer soles? Putting almost flat batteries in your head torch?
So maybe just the right of competitiveness for you is the best amount. The amount that makes you feel really motivated to succeed, but not so terrified that your legs are wobbly. And no matter how competitive you get, remember that children and pensioners should never be collateral damage.
Lavallee, D., Kremer, J., Moran, A. and Williams, M. (2012). Sport Psychology 2nd edition. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
All images by Tim Lloyd Photography