American football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” This quote reflects the uber-competitive nature of American culture, where society sets people up to compete with each other. Everyone wants to win or be the best, and many go to great lengths to try to achieve this, but is it healthy? Is being competitive worth it, or do its cons outweigh its pros?

“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

– Vince Lombardi

The Pros

For many, competition serves as a powerful motivator. Competition is a form of extrinsic motivation, where external circumstances work as the driving force instead of motivation coming from within an individual. Competitions can be a useful tool to motivate those without strong internal motivation. Competition can also boost productivity. Since winning often means outperforming your opposition, people often work harder and longer to get an edge over their competition. Another positive aspect of competition is that it can inspire personal growth. In a competitive situation where people are given a goal to strive towards, they will work hard to reach it, learning and developing new skills. 

The Cons

However, for some, competition leads to burnout and leaves them exhausted. Psychologist Alice Schluger, Ph.D. suggests that competition makes people constantly compare themselves and look to others for approval. This constant comparison and search for validation is unhealthy and can lead to a negative self-image and worsened self-esteem. Competition also may not be the best motivator. According to Sander van der Linden, Ph.D., when competition is the main source of people’s motivation, they are no longer motivated when the competition ends. He describes a study where college students competed to reduce their energy consumption, and during the span of the competition, energy usage at the campus decreased significantly. However, when the competition ended, the energy usage almost immediately bounced back to where it had been before the competition. In short, relying on competition as a motivator often only causes superficial changes in behavior. 

The negative results of competition are often cited as reasons for eliminating competition, but it isn’t that simple. Yes, competition can push people too far and lead them to burn out, but it can also be utilized to create positive outcomes for those involved. Like many things, competition is good in moderation, and an emphasis should be placed on having healthy competition rather than no competition. Schluger suggests four tips that can help make competition healthier. 

Tips for Healthier Competition

Tip #1: Reflect on your insecurities and find ways to manage them

Those who reflect on their insecurities can examine how competitions may impact their self-image and can make informed decisions when deciding which competitions to participate in. 

Tip #2: Look at the progress made

It’s easy to get caught up in competition and forget the mountains summited and gains achieved. Looking at the progress one has already made can help alleviate some of the stress associated with competition and boost confidence.  

Tip #3: Focus on your strengths 

Focusing on one’s strengths rather than weaknesses can help competitors better focus on how to reach their goals.

Tip #4: Instead of trying to be the best, focus on doing the best

Turning competition on its head and trying one’s best can be a better source of motivation than trying to outperform others. This can also help improve self-esteem, eliminating the need to compare oneself to others. 

Competition will always be a part of life and business, so learning how to engage with it healthily is important. If competition becomes increasingly stressful or is negatively impacting mental health, perhaps it is time to take a step back, go through Schluger’s tips, and find a way forward that is healthy and productive.

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