Is Your “Competitiveness” Making You Worse? by max el-hag

The Importance of Semantics

I put the word competitiveness in quotes in the title of this article because I think issues in communication largely arise from having different interpretations of words. For example, a gymnast who can do an iron cross might call themselves strong and think that a power-lifter, in spite of an ability to deadlift triple bodyweight, is weak because of their definition of strength. The gymnast defines strength through the ability to control ones body in space, isometric contraction forces, scapular stabilization strength, end range strength and the power-lifter classifies it through the physical characteristics that give someone the ability to move external objects of the highest loads in space. Definitions and categorizations are always relative to the perspective lens we use to analyze the world. Throughout my career as a coach, I have found that people sometimes limit their own likelihood of success based on their improper understanding of the word ‘competitive.’

So many times athletes or clients say things like “I’m really competitive…”, “I hate to lose…”, or “I’ll show you how motivated I am because I hate to lose.” It’s almost as if they are trying to convince themselves or me that they have what it takes to become a champion. Can it be that this desire to win and the hatred of losing is all that is required to attain greatness? Based on the fact that almost everyone on the planet would prefer to win than lose, and would like the material success, attention, praise, admiration of others, etc, I would say that disliking losing is not a special characteristic. When people say that to me, my mind translates it into, “I am a flawed human being like everyone else with an ego that needs to feel special and superior.”

So if it is not this preference for winning and losing, what is it that makes a champion and how can we re-define the word and give it more granularity so that association with the word makes you more likely to succeed? Unfortunately it is impossible to truly understand the psychology of another human being. It’s ironic really because we are convinced that we “know people”, and that we have “friends”, and that we are “madly in love” with our partners only to find out that we are different than we thought we were, and they are different than we thought they were. But, we can attempt to gain insight into champions by listening to their media interviews, we can ask them questions, and we can observe them to try to get insight into their behaviors and thinking. Unfortunately, these communication tools are so convoluted, often packaged by marketing experts to say things that you WANT to hear, often masking reality to hold on to trade secrets, and so separate from the truth that they become pretty meaningless. Very few of us have direct access to good professional athletes, and an even smaller percentage of us have access to the cream of the crop. What makes someone like Rich Froning, Michael Phelps’, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, or Usain Bolt operate on a different level than even their closest competitors? I think, based on my experience, readings, discussions, and observing a lot of good talent, that one of their key competitive advantages, aside from their physical gifts and circumstances, is their approach to life, competitions and adversity. I don’t want to pretend that having the right mental approach is all that counts, because that is a recipe for disappointment for most people. I would love to believe that we live in a world where anything is possible if you work hard enough for it, but that is just not true. I think that people who have never reached for something high enough perpetuate this OR it is spread from really successful people with low self esteem who can’t accept that they are in fact gifted in a lot of ways. I’ve found so many athletes of all levels significantly under-perform because they improperly manage the war between their ears. There is a radically different mind-state in the good competitors versus the great competitors, and that is not always reflected in their placing on the leaderboard.

This specific article is not about game day psychology, but instead the type of thinking that you need to employ on a regular and consistent basis for long periods of time if you want to attain your physical goals. While this information could be useful to an outlier, I think it is also extremely useful if you want to find your best self, whether that is in a business venture, an athletic pursuit, or just in any physical goal. While I don’t have the answers as to what is the optimal path, I do have enough data to show that there are a lot of traps you can avoid in your path to cultivate a definition of competitive that allows you to ascend the dominance hierarchy of your choosing.

Mistaken meaning

#1- Assuming “Competitiveness” Means Winning

“Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”- Vince Lombardi

While quotes like the above help to create myths about historical figures and legends, I think they do more damage than good to people’s psyches. I have a ton of athletes, friends, and colleagues who think that their “competitiveness” is going to help them win. Being competitive has nothing to do with winning and losing, it has to do with an approach that is taken to avoid the feelings associated with loss and to increase the likelihood of experiencing the feelings of success. One of the main definitions for the word ‘compete’ is to “take part in a contest.” And by definition there are going to be winners and losers. Being very competitive has nothing to do with your desire to win and lose and more to do with your sensitivity to the feelings of winning and losing.

#2 – Avoiding situations where you can lose

Everybody loses. There is not a single great historical figure who ever went their whole lives without losing. Even ‘undefeated’ people spent years getting beat by people in the upper ranks of the sport, their training partners, and their coaches before they became the person that they are. Losing sucks and if you become too comfortable with the feelings of loss, you will stop pushing yourself to strive further. But if you are too emotionally weak to deal with the feelings of loss, then you are losing out on opportunities to learn from people better than you. Most people who produce champions will say that you need to spend approximately a third of your time competing against people better than you, a third against people worse than you, and a third of your time against people who are equally matched to you. That means that champions are forged in an environment where they lose about half the time. If you are too emotionally weak to handle a loss or a workout that highlights one of your weaknesses, then you are likely setting yourself up to hit your own ceiling.

#3 – Thinking that your mindset makes you special

People think that their desire to win and avoid loss is something that distinguishes them. You’re not unique if you like doughnuts, sex, or winning. It’s pretty common, and you should not expect that it is going to help you achieve something. It is likely that your ego and your sense of self righteousness or self importance has gotten out of hand. Most media and people are surprised to meet people who are first starting to experience the fruits of their labor that we call greatness. They commonly refer to their humility and ‘normalness.’ It seems as if winning, success, media, praise, etc have a way of changing them for the worse and stop them from focusing on the things that made them progress in the first place. I think this is where the phrase “…it is easier to get to the top than to stay on top” comes from. Even if you have to cultivate an ego to be great, you probably don’t want to be remembered as an arrogant jerk. So, it’s better to maintain your perspective and your humility so people want to be around you on your path to success, and long after you lose your physical dominance.

#4 – Letting your rationality be effected by your feelings

In an article earlier in the year during the Crossfit Open, I spoke about people who are unable to accept that they didn’t do the work required to attain what they want. Because people feel these horrible feelings, they want to create a reality in their imagination that makes it anything other then their own fault. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, because it is too difficult to introspect and analyze their short-comings, they instead cultivate amazing tactics to blame things other than themselves. At the end of the day, the drama you create, the people you try to throw under the bus, and the storyline you create will not make you feel better about losing if you wanted to win. Instead, you should be forming a plan and doing the things required to get better rather than focusing on the story you want to tell yourself as to why you “…should not have lost.”

#5 – Letting your feelings construct improper plans to progress

After a loss, it is generally easy to understand what went wrong because hindsight is 20/20. This mistake comes with multiple examples of poor choice, so I will sub-categorize this one further.

  • They find out that they suck at skill and they plan to “attack their weakness.” But unfortunately they don’t have any idea how to practice things properly or how to make changes required to get better at something. They also don’t understand the time required to create the adaptation so they rush the path. For example, someone finds out they’re not good at heavy snatches so they decide to snatch heavy every single day to a max because they heard that is what the Bulgarians did. Instead they should have spent some time to develop better positions, a better understanding of the lifts, a better squat, better pull sequencing, and taken the long game approach.
  • They find out that they aren’t as good at one specific aspect of their sport, and they begin to focus too much time on that one skill instead of continuing to progress in all areas of their craft. I will not go into the full complexity of each sport, but a swimmer must be able to start, turn, stroke efficiently, and have the appropriate energy systems developed. A fighter needs to be able to wrestle, strike, grapple, take a blow, and have the energy systems to support those skills. A CrossFit athlete needs strength, a well-developed aerobic system, a well-developed anaerobic system, gymnastics efficiency, and a variety of other skills. If you enter a contest and you find that one of these aspects holds you back, you must properly develop that, while not losing out on your aggregate skill level. So many people try to find specialist coaches who don’t understand the ‘big picture’ if something goes wrong. They forget that the ability to execute at the highest level is about refining ALL aspects of one’s chosen game and in the long run this specialist approach to individual aspects of a sport only works if they are putting in equal effort to all parts.
  • Coach jumping. There are coaches who are probably not suited to coach the people they are coaching. Sometimes that is accepted by both athlete and coach because they are willing to explore the learning together. This is the case with a new coach who is exposed to a young talent and wants to try to bring them to the highest level of sport for the first time. Often times this is due to overconfidence/insecurity of the coach and preying on the ignorance of a younger athlete. Coaches know that they can get a place in the limelight if they get credit for a talented athlete, and instead of admitting their lack of knowledge they allow the athlete to continue to believe that their success is attributed to the methods of the coach. I’ve found these types of relationships often times explode and people seek new coaches when they realize that they are a unique talent and they need something else to continue to progress. I am 100% ok with finding a new coach, but it should be for the right reason. If you find that your coach doesn’t have the knowledge base you need, or doesn’t communicate with you in the manner you need to succeed, then you should find a new coach. I have actually encouraged some of my athletes to find new coaches before because I thought that we had different perspectives on athletic development and I knew that I couldn’t support their behaviors. However, I have seen a lot of people leave their coaches because they just don’t want to take responsibility for losing, or they want a more popular coach, or because they got painful feedback they didn’t want to hear. That is the wrong reason to leave a coach or find a new coach. A running theme in this article is that these decisions should not come SOLELY from a place of emotion and should be very calculated.

#6 – Thinking solely about what you’re doing

I’ve heard people tell me they are doing “all the right things” so many times. They have the right equipment, the right diet, the right mindset, the right schedule, and the right coach and they haven’t figured out what they are not doing that is preventing them from success. “Right” is usually classified by popularity. That popularity is usually either created by an outlier who is winning or by the masses who are part of the ‘in crowd.’ Following either of those paths does not account for the law of individual differences, and it is likely that everything you are doing ‘right’ is probably ‘wrong’ for you if you are not progressing. The right formula is much more than what you are doing, it is about: what is actually working, how fast it is working, how you are approaching it, whether or not you are enjoying it, the circumstances of your life, etc. Simplifying your path into a right versus wrong label is just your imagination trying to create a sense of superiority about your behaviors, and is probably a signal that your ego needs to be put into check. No coach is right for every body, no plan is right for everybody, no diet is right for every body, and if what you are doing is right for you, you probably wouldn’t feel the need to tell everyone about it because your results and self confidence would speak for themselves.

Using an Upgraded Definition

Life is so complex and impossible to understand. It is our human need to attempt to simplify it and boil down the most difficult things into categories, phrases, equations, and memes. It is never fun to admit our inadequate minds, our un-desirable characteristics, and our limitations. This mental need to reduce and the difficult nature of cultivating humility are important variables that define your likelihood of success. Instead of believing that they are competitive, champions are constantly DOING the things on a day-to-day basis that are difficult. We label these constant choices as competitive, and sometimes I think people try to mimic this behavior to prove they are competitive. The true successes don’t seem to be trying to live up to a standard, but instead are behaving in accordance with who they are. The non-champions are modeling themselves after their behavior and labeling those things “competitive” so they can believe the story they tell themselves about who they want others to believe they are. I think ultimately what this entire article can be boiled down to is that you need to discover who you really are outside of the ego construct you create and try to convince the world is “you.” If you are a champion, then by nature you are likely someone who extends yourself continuously, and if you are not, you will likely not be a champion. There is nothing wrong with that as being true to you is always a more successful strategy for enjoying life and finding meaning in this chaotic world than is lying to everyone else and yourself. So, just make sure the next time you tell someone or try to convince yourself that you are competitive that you are doing the things required to earn that title. Run through a m*tHe#fu*ker’$ face!

~ Max

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Max El-Hag
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