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We’re all motivated to pursue our athletic endeavors for different reasons—to lose weight, work toward a personal best or to simply provide an outlet for a competitive spirit. The latest research suggests that the last reason may be an untapped source of inspiration for many of us, an extra incentive to reach our athletic goals.
In looking at the role of running rivalries, a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science revealed that more than half of the runners surveyed identified a local rival whom they saw as important motivation for their training and racing. They also found that when they looked at race results, “the presence of at least one rival predicted significantly faster race times.” Indeed, in a 5K race, the participants ran roughly 25 seconds faster if their rival was competing in the same race.
It’s no secret that this deep-seated desire to “beat” someone is a common theme in sports across all levels from recreational to elite. Just like in horse racing when the horse enters the final stretch, humans also have an innate drive to outrun their competition.
“I believe that a biological playful, competitive, almost Darwinesque desire to win is at the basis of rivalries,” says Dr. Marshall Mintz, a clinical and sports psychologist in Springfield, N.J. “Power, control and aggression are powerful forces in the psychology of human performance, which can become very visible during rivalry situations.”
Even with this new research, it is important to keep in mind that sports psychologists first and foremost steer athletes toward a “mastery” focus when it comes to athletic competition. This means that they favor an athlete putting his energies into enhancing his own abilities through training and practice, rather than placing emphasis on elements outside themselves, like rivalries. With that said, Mintz adds, “If you are not trying to make technical improvement, rivalry can provide a motivational enhancement.”
However, the circumstances where a rival may be detrimental to performance occur when you allow your competition to distract you from the task at hand. When you get too wrapped up in racing your training partner or crosstown opponent, you can end up losing concentration and making strategic mistakes in the execution of a race or workout.
“If you are not working on anything other than maintaining optimal intensity of effort, however, then practicing with a rival or competitive partner can possibly be helpful,” Mintz explains. “Having a ‘rival’ who is slightly more productive and able to maintain a slightly higher rate of performance may enable you to follow them and increase your pace and intensity.”
While having a rival of equal or slightly higher ability level can help motivate you in certain types of workouts, you stand to experience the greatest boost in racing environments. “A rival’s presence can possibly increase an athlete’s sense of purpose and meaning regarding an event,” Mintz says.
“Power, control and aggression are powerful forces in the psychology of human performance, which can become very visible during rivalry situations.”
—Clinical and sports psychologist Dr. Marshall Mintz