Competition, once revered around the globe, seems to get a bad rap these days. Our softening society is pinning competition vs. the “let’s all get along” zeitgeist, as if it’s unhealthy.
The truth is that competition is not only healthy, but also evolutionary biology at work. We are wired to ensure the survival of our species. What’s a surefire way to ensure survival? By being an asset to the tribe and beating others out in the hunt. In fact, research from the University of Missouri suggests that competition might help explain why the human brain has grown exponentially over millions of years when compared to other species.
But now that we have survived on this planet, is it still needed? The short answer: YES. Here's why.
Related: Coaching From the Ancient Spartans
Preparation → Confidence → Competition
As Spartan has grown over the past decade-plus, I’ve seen firsthand how competition raises all of our performances. It forces us to work harder, to prepare relentlessly.
If you want to have a competitive edge, you’re going to need some confidence, and confidence grows through preparation. Think of some of the most unique competitors in history, the ones who weren’t shoo-ins for success — Usain Bolt, Spud Webb, and Melanie Roach, to name a few. These athletes took preparation to the next level, gained confidence along the way, and became elite in their respective sports. They did the work, put in the time, and trained their asses off to stand out.
Back when I had my pool business, no matter what time the business day finished, my team and I ALWAYS prepared ourselves for the following day. I quickly learned that even if it was 11 p.m., we had to empty our trucks and organize everything perfectly for the next day (which typically started at 5 a.m.). If we didn't we’d fall behind, and there was always another pool company that was ready to swoop in and take our business.
Through some pain and suffering, we quickly learned that it was ALWAYS better to be prepared, no matter what.
If you’re a parent, this component of doing the work is essential. Kids will absorb far more by watching you put in the time and effort yourself, rather than just hearing you preach the importance of preparation. Be the role model that they need to see by showing them what this looks like. Monkey see, monkey do. So if you’re looking to raise a competitor, BE a competitor.
Your Brain on Competition
At Spartan, we talk all the time about the importance of physical activity as a vehicle for those feel-good chemicals like dopamine, adrenaline, and oxytocin. If you want to feel better all around, get moving. But if you want to multiply that feel-good experience, add in some competition and watch as your brain lights up like crazy!
Why? When we do well in a competition, our brain gets flooded with dopamine, and it’s such a rush that we crave a repeat experience. We want to jump right back on that starting line and crush our competitors all over again.
It’s not just increased feel-good chemicals that will keep you competing, though. The part of your brain that regulates your competitive drive — the prefrontal cortex — is also responsible for higher-order thinking like working memory and emotion regulation. When we compete, this part of the brain has more activity, especially post-competition. We feel more competent and capable overall. It’s an awesome feedback loop: We feel confident, we compete, we feel confident again. Bingo.
Related: Get Out of Your Head
Competition Isn’t the Problem
I’m not a believer in the “everyone gets a trophy” culture. I think it’s total bullshit. Not because I think losers should sink in misery, but because I think that hard work should be rewarded. Those who work hard, prepare, and build up their confidence deserve the trophy. Why? Because it’s earned.