Whether you’re training or racing, you should try to be as competitive as possible, right? Not always, say the experts, and new research shows that finding the right competitive balance can be the key to performing at your peak.
“Overly competitive people often lose sight of the fact that striving for excellence and beating others are two different things,” says Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Numerous studies show that when you spend your time focusing on what others are doing, it takes attention and energy away from your own performance, he says.
Another problem with being too focused on winning is that you’re gauging your success on something you have no control over, says veteran triathlete and trainer Duane Franks, because you don’t get to decide who is racing against you. Winning a single race doesn’t always give you any useful information about your own performance. You can perform poorly and still get to the podium if the competition isn’t very strong, and you can get a PR and still come in near the middle of the pack if the competition is stiff.
“Failure is just feedback,” he says. “You can learn a lot from a poor performance.”
Of course, not being competitive enough can also work against you. For one, it keeps you from the training, knowledge and experience that come with competing in races regularly.
“Our insecurities keep us in a ‘safe place’ and off the playing field where the chance of failure lurks,” says Joy DiPalma, a trainer and coach from Los Angeles. “If you approach an event knowing that you trained as well as you could, you should feel confident and just take the race head on.”
You know you’ve struck the right competitive balance when you’re setting reasonable but challenging goals, training hard but at your own pace, and focusing on the process over the outcome. “Don’t be a calf watcher,” says Geordie McConnell of the Ottawa Triathlon Club. “Just keep reminding yourself that nothing builds fitness like a race, and always keep in mind why you fell in love with the sport in the first place.”
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