We all compete in sports, jobs, school, and any other area of our lives. There are competitions, however, that touch us at a deep gut level. These are competitions with a known rival – an opponent against whom one competes over and over again. In these cases, a set of psychological and physiological reactions get triggered that are more intense and visceral, with much more extreme feelings and an investment that goes beyond simply winning.
A psychological study at North Umbria University of how soccer teams prepare for games shows that, when a team is competing against another team considered “extreme rival’, players have higher levels of testosterone than if they were playing against a team not considered arch-rival, these levels indicate a heightened preparation for the competition. One of the reasons for such heightened reaction has to do with the fact that, with a known rival, one wants to win FOR THE SAKE OF WINNING AT ANY COST. There is an added motivation to achieve victory here, which does not exist under more normal circumstances. And while this can spur players and athletes to push themselves to do more and better, it can also affect their judgment and ethical standards. The concept of “winning at any cost’, in fact, can push people to lose their good judgment, cutting corners, lying and cheating or defying rules, because winning at any cost is the ultimate goal.
I believe competition with a known rival rivets us so much and affects our behaviors and thoughts in such deep ways because it takes us back to childhood experiences of sibling competitions and rivalries, stirring old emotions from those times. Even though we may not be aware of it on the surface, or even if sibling competition is no longer an issue now that we are adults, in certain situations we unconsciously return to those times and feelings, and react the same way we did then. The same blind desire to win propels us to excel and succeed, unconsciously compensating for those childhood experiences of loss and disappointment. Sibling rivalry is where it all starts, and where the issues keep going back to.
A sibling is usually someone we saw as competing with us for parents’ attention, special privileges, love, and so on. He or she was someone who was always there, so the competition was an on going challenge we faced day in and day out and that got more and more exacerbated as time went on.
We might have competed with an older sibling who seemed to always be ahead of us and whom we couldn’t catch up with, no matter what; or a younger sibling who seemed to get most of the attention seemingly without doing much to deserve it, and who could get away with much more than we believed we could. This competition felt unfair, as we tended to believe this sibling had an advantage over us. Even as adults, we continue to feel we have to constantly compensate for the disadvantage by pushing ourselves further and harder.
It is helpful to be aware of these feelings and cautiously use them to stretch ourselves without losing our abilities to be fair, balanced and appropriate, by not giving up when we think we are at a disadvantage, and by being prepared to understand and contain the feelings triggered by this situation.