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When Competition Kills Ambition

When Competition Kills Ambition


A friend of mine was a very gifted distance runner when he was younger. His body was built to run far and fast, and he loved doing it. His teachers, coaches, and parents could see that he had real potential, but his running seemed to lack urgency and consistency. Finally one day his father sat him down to explain the concept of racing.

‘Son, do you understand what your supposed to do in a race?’ he asked. ‘Isn’t it about running with your friends and having fun?’ the boy replied. ‘Huh? Aahh no son, the idea of racing is to run faster than everyone else,’ his father said shaking his head with a smile. ‘Ooohhh, ok dad’ the boy smiled innocently. I doubt it was obvious at the time, but that conversation had a significant impact on my friends’ trajectory as an athlete.

At first, his results improved dramatically. As he progressed through the ranks he continued to receive positive reinforcement with each victory. However, the better he got the better other runners seem to get. It was getting harder and harder to outrun everyone. One day, another runner beat him. Now a young man, my friend resolved to work harder to win, but no matter how hard he tried he could never seem to pass his nemesis. Then one day he quit, never to race again.

I asked him one day why he stopped running, he told me; ‘I just realised, I wasn’t ever going to beat this guy, so what was the point?’ The thing is, he was one of the best runners in the country for his age. Unfortunately, this pattern is not uncommon, the talented young athlete who appears destined for sporting success suddenly quits before they even come close to realizing their potential. Competition is at the heart of these catastrophes. It is a double edge sword, and those who wield it often do more harm than good.

Today my friend is very successful in his career; he has no regrets and loves every aspect of his work. I cannot help but wonder though if he might have experienced the same satisfaction and flow as a runner, had his idea of success been a little different. Knowing how he approaches his life and work, I am certain he could have been a very accomplished athlete. He had loved running as a boy, but somewhere along the line that love was lost.

I wonder what might have happened if in that pivotal moment when his father sat him down to teach him about sport he had said something like: ‘the idea of racing is to run faster than you did last time’. If these were the words his father chose, he might just have ignited a passion for running that transcended the idea that winning is what matters most, and being the best is the only measure of success.

I suspect that if my friend was taught that sport is a means for testing oneself, building ones character and achieving personal excellence, his relationship with running might have blossomed instead of withering. Had this been the case he might not have viewed his competitors as adversaries impeding his success and satisfaction, but allies impelling him to new levels of performance and confidence from within.

James Hunt and Nicky Lauda fought bitterly for years, trying to outdo each other to be the best driver on the formula one circuit. Only after Lauda was critically injured did he come to understand the important role Hunt had played in inspiring his passion and dedication. This insight allowed them to heal their relationship and finally enjoy their achievements. Before this, each was a ‘winner’ at different times, but neither was truly successful.

From a young age society teaches us to be the best, to compete and compare ourselves against others. It begins in school the first time you receive a grade for your work and then ask your friend ‘what did you get?’ Next the competition is for which college you are accepted into, then what kind of job you get, how much money you earn, and even how well your kids are doing compared to others.

This competitive zeal permeates every aspect of our lives, and not surprisingly is often exacerbated in sport. A pro I coached earlier in my career recently told me that his coaches’ main mantra for their pre season was ‘compete’. I am always amazed at the logic in this thinking, demanding teammates fight tooth and nail all summer for spots on a team, then instantly expecting they will flick a switch and cooperate when the season starts. How we prepare is how we perform.

As a society we seem to have an unhealthy relationship with competition not unlike our relationship to the stock market. Most people seem to fall into two camps, some are obsessed with it, and others despise it or do their best to ignore it completely. Love it or hate we must recognise that like the stock market, competition is not good or bad, its people that are the problem.

The stock market is only a vehicle for companies to raise money from the public. Competition is only a means for gauging progress and recognising excellence. It plays an important role for athletes in maintaining discipline; focus and persistence. Few athletes would work hard to better themselves without the carrot of competition, people are motivated by progress. The key to creating a healthy relationship with competition is striving to separate worthiness from winning.

John Wooden refused to acknowledge the scoreboard when judging his team on their performances. He held his team to higher standards of success that revolved around effort, focus and execution. He could handle losing if he believed his team gave it their all in the aim of reaching their fullest potential, but he hated it when they won trying or being anything less then their best.

Ironically, Woodens approach actually led to more winning. In fact, his UCLA Bruins teams boast one of the most impressive win loss records in the history of sports. When you were coached by Wooden, gradually you came to understand that to win was to strive to be your best; it had nothing to do with others. This meant that it was possible to win in every moment of training, and every game regardless of the result.

This philosophy sparked an unconditional love for the game and created consistent effort, which led to excellence and ultimately manifested as achievement. This love for the game is crucial for success, the best athletes I ever worked with were those who had found the one thing they were willing to struggle for, and committed to that struggle.

In a race of ten people, only one can win. In a game between two teams, only fifty percent of participants walk off winners. A tennis coach I respect told me that the average tennis pro will lose 75% of the games he or she plays. If we promote the idea that winning is the only thing that matters, then most athletes are going to be disappointed most of the time. For those few who obliterate themselves to make it to the top, the warm and fuzzy feeling is fleeting, and fear of loss soon sets in. Anger comes next and depression follows suit.

The fear is about protecting the winners’ status they have coveted for so long. The Anger is about covering up that fear so others wont judge them. The depression comes from the realisation that all the ‘work’ they did to get to the top is only the beginning. It is at this point many athletes feel trapped by their success. Through their training they have built the skill, smarts and physical conditioning, but they begin to despise the sport they once loved.

When they see the illusion for what it is, they become disillusioned with sport. Some like my friend see it sooner than others, but ultimately all are lost. When we emphasis the need to be the best, we turn athletes away from their love for the game and create an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship with sport and success. If instead we cultivate a drive to continually improve, we make success visible and achievable in every moment. This frees athletes from the pressure to ‘perform’ and allows them to do and be their best.



As I was writing this piece, Jeff Walz’s press conference footage (see below) blew up the internet. I think its important to watch the whole press conference. I agree with some of what he is saying, but I think some of his messages are dangerous too. Its easy to say he is flat out wrong, but I think if press this press conference were held a day later, his message would have been much more balanced and considered.