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Coaches key in making competition a positive or negative sport experience for athletes

This is an excerpt from Sport Psychology for Coaches by Damon Burton & Thomas Raedeke.

A competition is a situation where an individual's or team's performance is being compared with a standard (Martens 1975). What standard will your athletes use? Comparisons can be made with three types of standards: an athlete's previous performance (self-evaluation focused on learning and improving); performances of other competitors (social evaluation focused on winning or placing high); and idealized standards (commonly recognized benchmarks of superior performance, such as a 4-minute mile (1.6 km), a 20-foot (6.1 m) pole vault, a triple-double in basketball, or a 100-yard (91 m) rushing game in American football). You will learn later in this text how to help athletes reduce anxiety and improve performance by focusing on self-evaluative goals rather than on winning. Are you willing to do this, even in a competitive situation? This is the type of question that your coaching philosophy will help you answer.

In addition, you'll need to think about whether competition is good or bad. How can your view of competition affect your coaching philosophy? Critics of competition point to problems such as violence between performers, coaches, officials, and spectators; development of serious participation-related physical disabilities; promotion of poor character development and distorted reasoning skills; lack of accountability in the classroom; and negative attitudes toward physical activity because of unpleasant sport experiences. Proponents, on the other hand, view competition as a constructive use of time and energy; a way to develop a sense of fair play, positive character traits, and skills that promote success in career and life; an important tool for enhancing quality of performance; and a powerful learning strategy that helps us to view problems as opportunities for achievement and fulfillment. Arguments on both sides of this debate are insightful and compelling, and it can be difficult to determine how beneficial competition really is.

When we ask our students whether they feel competition is good or bad, the overwhelming response is that it is good, although many students want to qualify their answer, having seen or experienced the negative consequences of winning being overemphasized. To us, this is a trick question, because we view competition as a neutral process, inherently neither good nor bad. Competition is not responsible for either the positive or the negative consequences so frequently highlighted by the media. The impact of competition, both helpful and detrimental, results not from competition itself but from how it is organized and conducted. As a coach, you play a major role in making sport a positive competitive experience—or not. In fact, competition can be fun, and making sport enjoyable will help your athletes stay in it longer and feel high intrinsic motivation to improve. Coaches who focus on athletes' physical, psychological, and social development, and make sport fun, normally promote high participation rates and minimize attrition. As you can see, then, the very nature of competition can affect your coaching philosophy.

This section discusses four areas of competition that your coaching philosophy must address in order to maximize the positive effects of competing. Let's look at what coaches must do to make competition a powerful motivational force, a valuable strategy for improving the quality of performance, a way to help athletes develop positive character traits, and a means of developing cooperative as well as competitive skills.

Making Competition a Powerful Motivational Force

Just as competition is used to motivate people in a variety of educational and business settings, it can be used to motivate your athletes in sport situations as well. Your coaching philosophy needs to ensure that competition is used appropriately to enhance your athletes' motivation. You may recall situations in which competition motivated you, such as playing an archrival for the conference championship, trying to outperform a friend on a big test, or working to land a good job. But have there ever been times when competition did not motivate you, or when it even reduced your motivation? As you can see in figure 1.3, competition provides the greatest motivation when the level of challenge is moderately difficult. That is, your athletes' motivation will probably be highest when they tackle a challenge approximately equal to their current capabilities. And their motivation will likely remain high as long as challenge falls within a comfort zone ranging from just above to just below their current capabilities.

As the discrepancy between skill level and the competitive challenge increases, motivation steadily declines. Athletes normally have less motivation to compete against substantially superior or inferior opponents than against ones of similar ability. In the first case, athletes may be able to play their best and still have no chance to win, and in the second case they'll probably win no matter how poorly they perform. Neither of these situations offers much motivation to perform their best. Therefore, coaches need a philosophy that encourages athletes to set process or performance goals—not focused solely on winning—with an optimal level of challenge so that they develop and maintain high motivation.

Improving Quality of Performance Through Competition

Competition can lead athletes to consistently perform their best—that is, it can improve their quality of performance. Having two players compete for a spot on the volleyball squad should lead to a better team, because each player is trying to improve as much as she can in order to make the team, become a starter, and contribute to team success. However, coaches must understand that competition doesn't automatically enhance quality, and they must learn how to counter the potential of pressure-packed situations to reduce quality or prompt performers to adopt negative solutions for reaching a particular competitive standard.

Competition can cause athletes to become shortsighted and thus hinder them from fully developing their capabilities. For example, some wrestlers become so concerned with outperforming their sparring partners that they continually rely on favorite moves instead of developing and refining new ones. Thus they perform well in practice but ultimately limit their skill development. Indeed, too much competition may be just as problematic for quality control as too little: My (Damon Burton's) work with the U.S. Ski Jumping Team showed me a classic example of the insidious effects of competition on athletes' development. Regulations from the team's executive board mandated that athlete funding and trip selection be based exclusively on performance. This system meant that every single jump—from dry-land training on plastic to on-snow training and competition—was vitally important. Every jump, each day, was a competition, prompting the jumpers to focus on maximizing their immediate results. Thus, although the system was designed to ensure equality of opportunity, it ended up inhibiting the jumpers' technical and tactical development.

Learning curves for any skill are seldom linear (see figure 1.4). Normally, when athletes learn new skills or try to correct major flaws in form, they must suffer through a temporary drop, and often subsequent plateaus, before moving on to higher performance levels. Unfortunately, the ski jumpers could not afford to go through this performance decline on their way to developing improved technique, because it could cost them funding and trips. Not surprisingly, an extensive evaluation of the jumpers' technical improvement over a 4-year period revealed minimal gains compared with those of jumpers from other countries. As a result, our jumpers had difficulty competing with opponents whose teams' selection procedures allowed them to develop their fundamental jumping techniques and tactics more normally. Competition needs to be used judiciously, so that it stimulates improvement in the quality of performance without limiting skill development. Your competitive philosophy must emphasize development, so that athletes strive to enhance quality in appropriate ways.

Competition as a Means to Develop Positive Character Traits

Your coaching philosophy must specify the importance you place on character development. Competition can play a valuable role in helping athletes develop positive character traits that will help them succeed in future endeavors. But competition does not automatically generate positive character traits, and, regrettably, competing in sport sometimes detracts from character development. Thus we believe it is essential that your coaching philosophy specify the role you will play in your athletes' character development.

Research has confirmed that athletes are less likely to participate in delinquent behavior than are nonathletes (Seefeldt & Ewing 1997). However, moral reasoning and good sporting behavior seem to decline as athletes progress to higher competitive levels, in part because of the increased emphasis on winning (Beller & Stoll 1995). Thus winning can be a double-edged sword in teaching character development. Some athletes may want to win so much that they lie, cheat, break team rules, and develop undesirable character traits that can enhance their ability to win in the short term. However, when athletes resist the temptation to win through unscrupulous means, they can develop positive character traits that last a lifetime. Character is a learned behavior, and a sense of fair play develops only if coaches plan to teach those lessons systematically, along with strategies for transferring the lessons and values to future life experiences.

Consider the character development possibilities in the following scenarios where a tennis player, Bob, could call his opponent's shot, a would-be winner, in or out because no one else could tell for sure where it landed:

  • Bob and his roommate John are tied at 6 in the final-set tiebreaker of their friendly match. In addition to bragging rights, the two have a cold drink wagered on the outcome.
  • Bob and his archrival are tied at 6 in the final-set tiebreaker of the state tennis championship. A possible college scholarship is also at stake.

It's easy to make the honest call in the first situation, playing against a friend with little riding on the outcome, but the response may have only minimal impact on Bob's long-term character development. However, if Bob makes the right call in the state championship match, with so much riding on the outcome, it is a lesson that can positively shape his character for the rest of his life. The value that athletes place on competitive success makes sport a domain for teaching integrity and character development, which can have long-lasting effects on personal growth. But these positive outcomes occur only when coaches make character development a high priority.

Teaching Athletes How to Cooperate as Well as Compete

We live in an extremely interdependent and cooperative society. In our everyday lives, we may go days at a time without competing, but we cooperate in many ways each day—from collaborating with others at work and home to purchasing products made by others (or creating products for others to purchase). Thus, in our modern society, learning how to cooperate is just as important for our young athletes as learning how to compete. This may become part of your coaching philosophy. Competition and cooperation are often depicted as opposing processes, even though they are actually complementary. Sport sociologist Gunther Luschen (1970) has described the relationship between competition and cooperation in terms of what he calls association—the ways that individuals or teams must cooperate in order to compete effectively.

Most of us can readily identify one type of association in that athletes in team sports must cooperate with each other in order for the team to perform cohesively. Such within-team cooperation is essential to a team's success. But between-team cooperation is necessary for competition to even occur. Teams have to agree on a time and place to compete. They also have to agree to a set of rules to govern their competition and promise to abide by them. Finally, competition assumes that all competitors or teams are going to give their best effort, or at least establish a mutually agreed upon level of commitment and effort. At its best, then, competition should involve a quest for excellence between evenly matched opponents who are giving maximal effort. Will you make it part of your philosophy to teach your athletes how to cooperate with each other—and with opposing teams—so that competition is the best it can be?

Final Thoughts on Competition

When administrators, coaches, parents, and fans understand competition and are committed to helping young athletes get the most from their competitive experiences, competition is viewed almost universally as positive. However, when members of any of these important adult groups, particularly coaches, lose perspective and fail to put the welfare of young athletes first, competition can become a negative experience. Your coaching philosophy provides the foundation for ensuring positive sport experiences for your athletes.

Learn more about Sport Psychology for Coaches.

More Excerpts From Sport Psychology for Coaches