In previous posts I have written about the great sportsmen I was so lucky to have competed against in my skeleton career. Because they were champions in their own right, they knew the value of facing a great competitor in drawing out great performances in themselves (2. Emulating Gregor Staehli). I was very grateful to have had competitors that wanted me to be at my best because they had the attitude described by the phrase, “may the best man win”. It created a very enjoyable competitive environment that not only brought out the best in me but allowed me to be happy and supportive of the performances of my competitors.
In creating this blog I have had the chance to interview a great number of very successful athletes including several Olympic Champions and I always make a point of asking them how they view their competition. In other words, do they see their opponents as friend or foe and invariably the answer is friend. I accept the possibility that there may be certain sports that are more combative in nature in which a healthy dislike of the competition may serve as a motivator in the heat of the competition but this is simply not the case when athletes compete independently. I would even go so far as to say that most of the top athletes in combative sports are able to get themselves into an optimal competitive state without having to trick themselves into believing they ‘hate’ their opponent.
Your success in sport is dependent almost entirely upon you and often has little to do with your opponent. It’s a valuable skill to be able to distinguish between what is and what is not under your control as it allows you to focus on what directly affects your chances of success. Even if you are of the mindset that athletes can be intimidated, such a tactic will work at times with certain opponents but if your goal to be the best, you’d better rely on something more consistent and tangible, like your own performance. Athletes are better served to develop friendships with their opponents. It creates a far more enjoyable environment that is every bit as competitive.
The following is an excerpt from the book Flow by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. It speaks very well to the value of those relationships and the importance of taking the time to make them positive and enjoyable.
“Unfair bosses and rude customers make us unhappy on the job. At home an uncaring spouse, an ungrateful child, and interfering in-laws are the prime sources of the blues. How is it possible to reconcile the fact that people cause both the best and the worst times?
“This apparent contradiction is actually not that difficult to resolve. Like anything else that really matters, relationships make us extremely happy when they go well, and very depressed when they don’t work out. People are the most flexible, the most changeable aspect of the environment we have to deal with. The same person can make the morning wonderful and the evening miserable. Because we depend so much on the affection and approval of others, we are extremely vulnerable to how we are treated by them.
“Therefore a person who learns to get along with others is going to make a tremendous change for the better in the quality of life as a whole. This fact is well known to those who write and those who read books with titles such as How to Win Friends and Influence People. Business executives yearn to communicate better so that they can be more effective managers, and debutantes read books on etiquette to be accepted and admired by the “in” crowd. Much of this concern reflects an extrinsically motivated desire to manipulate others. But people are not important only because they can help make our goals come true; when they are treated as valuable in their own right, people are the most fulfilling source of happiness.”