I don’t know many people in swimming that are competitive to the point of being destructive to others. I do, however, know many who evaluate their performance primarily on the colour of their medal or their placing in the event.
That’s not healthy competitiveness. That’s actually quite self-destructive
‘Unhealthy’ Competitive Mindset: Success = Winning
There’s plenty of evidence that when athletes equate success primarily with winning don’t they tend not to become winners. They’re more likely to fall by the wayside as they struggle to make the transition to harder levels of competition (as indeed I did from age-group to senior swimming). They tend to suffer from anxiety, stress and are prone to losses in confidence.
They need to win. Winning feeds their self-image and losing hurts it. When they lose they’re more likely to question themselves and their ability, and less likely to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and extract the learning from the experience. If winning comes easy they might even start to slack off in races (either because they don’t need to try hard, or to self-sabotage rather than try hard and lose) and training; and fail to fulfill their potential.
Healthy Competitive Mindset: Success = Improving
Conversely, those that get to the highest level and repeat their success tend to place more value on self-improvement. In this mindset they see competition as a personal challenge: as an opportunity to test themselves and the work they’ve put in against others. Yes, others are involved. Yes, they want to win. But they evaluate success against ‘self-referenced’ criteria.
Swimmers with this mindset want to win, but they don’t need to win. If they don’t, it doesn’t hurt so much. It doesn’t chip away at their self-image. They’re more likely to learn what they need to learn, put the work in and come back stronger.
Some of the great competitors, like Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps have and incredible desire to win but are protected by their desire to keep on learning and improving, and are therefore more likely to learn what they need to learn and come back stronger.
A Simple Rule
The longer you stay in a sport the more likely you are to fulfill your potential.
When you boil it down to basics, if the most important thing to you is winning, you’ll stay motivated as long as you are winning. That means most will lose motivation, or worse, along the way. Join the “coulda woulda shoulda” crowd that I, if I’m honest, was in for several years after I quit.
If you place at least as high a value on improving, however, as long as you are improving or can see that you have room for improvement, your motivation is less likely to suffer.
That’s why a healthy competitive mindset, that values self-improvement at least as much as winning, is more likely to lead to you fulfilling your potential, and, therefore (paradoxically) more medals and records!
The good news
The good news is that anyone can develop a healthy competitive mindset. The first step is to appreciate that the alternative is less healthy, and make a choice.