A Conversation with David Shields

Lead author of

True Competition: A Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport and Society

Q: Your book is titled, “True Competition.” What do you mean by that?

DS: I’ve been working with athletes and coaches for many years and over that time, I’ve become convinced that most people fall far short of their full potential – and, frankly, do not win or succeed as often as they might. So why is that? There are many reasons, of course. There’s performance anxiety; stresses of various sorts. But one of the most pervasive and profound reasons goes largely unnoticed. It originates in the way people think about the very meaning and purpose of competition.

By this I mean that many of us, probably most of us, harbor (deep in our psyche) a fundamental misunderstanding of what competition is all about. And that misunderstanding quietly interferes with our ability to perform at our best.

And what is perhaps even more interesting is that this same misunderstanding which keeps us from reaching our optimal performance, also promotes many of the social problems and ills that so often plague our playing fields and sport arenas – problems like cheating, aggression, fighting, showboating, taunting, baiting officials, and so on. In fact, one of the key points of the book is to demonstrate how excellence and ethics go hand-in-hand.

Q: Can you elaborate on that? What is this misunderstanding?

DS: Let me start by asking a question: When you are competing, do you want your opponents to perform at their best, even if that means you might lose? Or would you rather that they trip up, have an off-day? If you are like most people, you’re quite happy if your opponent is not at the peak of their capability. And why is that? It is because we tend to think of the contest as a miniature war and the ultimate goal is to defeat the enemy – the opponent.

So one way to think about competition is built on a metaphor of a battle or war. This comes so naturally to us that we are often unaware that there is a different, and more advantageous, way to think about competition.

Q: What is this other way?

DS: There’s a hidden pearl of wisdom about competition buried in the Latin origins of the word. What does the word “competition” literally mean? Well, it means “to strive” or “to seek” with. Importantly, it does not mean to strive against, but to strive with. Competition is a kind of partnership in which something is being “strived for” or “sought after.” What is that something? Let me tell a brief story.

After her wonderfully successful career, tennis star Chris Evert was asked about her favorite match. Interestingly, she didn’t name any of the Wimbleton titles that she won. Instead, she named a match that she lost. She lost it to her arch rival, Martina Navratilova. Now why would she name that match? It is because it was a match that provided her with the opportunity to push her own boundaries; to push toward excellence. In a sense, even while competing, she was in a partnership with Martina in which each of them pushed the other to the very top of their game.

True competition is all about seeking excellence. Winning is great when it happens; but the ultimate goal is to improve ourselves; to test the limits of our ability. So most fundamentally, at its root, competition is about partnering with opponents to seek excellence. And seeking excellence occurs most naturally when those who are involved see the underlying partnership that makes it all possible.

Q: So are you saying that seeking excellence and trying to win are two different things?

DS: Seeking excellence and trying to win are different. They can, and often do, go hand-in-glove. But they can also pull us in quite different directions. It may strike some as odd, but the strongest motivation for winning comes when a person is motivated by things more important than winning. The motivation to pursue excellence, which requires an opponent who is performing well, will bring out our best much better than simply desiring to win, even if the desire for victory is quite strong.

But please don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with wanting to win. And there is certainly nothing wrong with giving your all, with leaving nothing behind, as they say, in an all-out effort to achieve victory. And yet that effort is more sustainable, more focused, and more energized if it is rooted in a deep desire to push against the boundaries of one’s own capabilities; to experience one’s own form of excellence. That’s what competition is really all about. And to do that effectively, you absolutely need challenging opponents who are performing well.

Q: Can you elaborate on these two different ways of understanding competition?

DS: As I said, sometimes we think about competition as if the contest is a battle or war. Opponents are enemies and the goal is simply to emerge from the battle victorious. Since this isn’t really consistent with the etymology of the word competition, I actually prefer to call this “decompetition.” I add the prefix “de-“ because it means “reserve of” or “opposite of.” And thinking about the contest as a war is really the opposite of why we have contests in the first place.

In true competition, the contest is thought about as a special kind of partnership. Yes, each competitor is trying to defeat his or her opponents, but it is the challenge that each person provides to their opponent that fuels an upward spiral of performance. While we often think about competition as the opposite of cooperation, in reality my opponent is cooperating with me by trying to defeat me; by giving me the best challenge he or she can. Only when the bar is set high can I push myself to the limits. Only when I have a strong opponent, can I dig deep and test the boundaries of my own capabilities.

Q: Are there other implications for thinking about the contest as a war?

DS: Sure. There are plenty of implications, all of which tend to distract us from achieving excellence. When we think about the contest as a miniature, scaled-down war, then we tend to focus more on the outcome than the process. We tend to see the contest as an opportunity to showcase our superiority, our dominance, over opponents, rather than an opportunity to strengthen our mastery and commitment. We tend to focus more on the rewards that can come with victory, rather than enjoying the internal or intrinsic benefits of playing the game. That’s just a few of the many consequences of thinking of the contest as a war. In our book, I elaborate on these and many others.

Q: And what about the benefits of thinking of the contest as a partnership?

DS: When we let our minds marinade in the metaphor of partnership, we start to reap a number of important benefits. First of all, we tap into the most powerful of all motives. A deep love of the game and a resonant sense of commitment to one’s teammates, is a far more lasting and potent motivation than can be tapped by thinking of opponents as enemies. And the kind of enjoyment that can be had from a strenuous pursuit of excellence is more enduring and sustaining than the flash-in-the-pan emotional boost that comes from conquering over others. And, finally, let me just mention that thinking of the contest as a mutual seeking of excellence undermines the motives that lead to all the many distortions that so often creep up in contest settings. When your focus is on excellence, it makes no sense to cheat, for example.

Q: Are there specific things that coaches can do to help their athletes gain the benefits of true competition?

DS: There are a host of strategies available. But before any of the specific strategies can be used effectively, the coach needs to be crystal clear about the inner dynamics and qualities of true competition. The coach must be able to recognize the tale-tale signs of true competition and be able to immediately spot any signs that it is beginning to degenerate into decompetition. In the third chapter of the book, we offer a field guide to true competition for just that purpose. In the following chapters, we identify a range of concrete strategies and approaches that a coach can use to support true competition, which, of course, will simultaneously support both optimal individual and team performance and create a positive sport environment.

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