I’m not a competitive person, but what does that really mean? To me, it means I’m not the type of person who hopes the other team won’t score, even if that means I’ll lose. I’m just having fun, not necessarily caring about the scoreboard. When I used to play soccer, a long time ago, and the other team had the ball, I’d cheer for them. I’d get these weird looks from parents, teammates, coaches, but for me, not encouraging them, even when I was trying to win, just felt unnatural. It felt like I was wishing their failure.
I’m still an athlete. I’m a diver, but winning has never been that high on my priority list. It’s just not something I think or worry much about.
I do think, however, most athletes I know seem to look at winning with obsession. A feeling that is summed up eloquently by former professional football coach Vince Lombardi when he famously said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
I think obsessing about winning causes anxiety and pressure that work against your goal of winning. According to British sports psychologist Graham Jones, stress and anxiety are likely to impact your performance. For people who obsess over winning and worry about not doing well, Jones says, their worries become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I remember when a boy on my dive team was very nervous about a meet we had coming up. He did not feel ready, so he turned to me, nervous, and asked, half-jokingly, if I thought he would be able to miss the meet if he threw up beforehand. The boy ended up going to the meet and failing on a dive that I’ve seen him perform perfectly a hundred times.
This story of sports anxiety caused by the pressure to perform well is not a unique one. I do not know anyone who can perform at her best when she is only driven by her own desire to win rather than by her love of the game.
The type of pressure the boy on my team was experiencing is something that author and lecturer on education and human behavioral tendencies, Alfie Kohn, describes in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Kohn describes one sect of competition where one person’s success effectively causes another person’s failure. He goes on to explain that athletes who are drilled that winning is more important than anything or anyone else feel more pressure.
What we should be focusing on instead of winning is our shared love of the game. When people, like the boy on my dive team, who love the sport they play are more focused on winning and their performance than on their love of the game, it makes playing less enjoyable.
I am not saying people shouldn’t want to win or that there is something inherently wrong with competition, but I am saying, every now and again, we should try to remember why we started to play and why we have continued playing and try to play for those reasons. The odds are, you didn’t start playing because you loved to win because when most people start something new, or at least when I start something new, I tend to lose…a lot, and that is okay.