What is decompetition and why does it matter?

Take out a piece of paper and draw a line along the middle. On the left, list all the positive things that you have experienced by competing (whether it is in sports, in school, in business, in politics, etc.). These can include things like fun, excitement, challenge, friendship and pride. On the right side, list the negative things that you have encountered in competitions. These can include such internal things as stress and anxiety, as well as external behaviors, such as fighting, cheating, lying and so on. Ask yourself this: Why does competition sometimes lead to such positive experiences and sometimes to such negative results?

Some people think that competition goes awry when people pull along; when they become too competitive. Problems arise, it is said, when people want to win “at any cost”. There is an element of truth in these statements. Yet they are more myth than reality. And it is a myth that is perpetuated by the media, as sports broadcasters, who are fond of praising people’s competitiveness until something ugly happens; then they blame the culprit for being too competitive.

After years of working with athletes and coaches, I have come to a different conclusion about the sources of the problems that all too often disrupt competition. Here is the key idea in a nutshell: There are two very different ways of thinking about the whole meaning, purpose, goal and value of competition. Each of these two ways has its own very distinct (and very predictable) characteristics and consequences. One of these two ways leads to such results as excellence and enjoyment. The other will not always result in cheating, antagonism and corruption but will still open the door to these negative results. Unfortunately, most people are unaware that there is more than one way to think about competition. “Isn’t it just trying to beat other people?” Not really.

The first way, which we call “real competition”, is based on the original meaning of the word. Please have perseverance with me for a moment because I’m just getting a little academic. The term “competition” comes from Latin roots and literally means “to strive with.” Importantly, it does not mean “to strive for”, but rather to strive with. Competition means that you strive against your opponent. In true competition, the competition makes it possible for everyone who participates to push themselves towards excellence. When we are true competitors, the challenge of a worthy opponent is valued, and the effort we make to try to win, because they help us reach the limits of our capacity. True competition is mutually beneficial for all participants. Everyone wins by striving for excellence and by experiencing the pleasure that comes from vigorously striving for a worthy goal. Sure, winning is more fun. But win or lose, we win.

The second way, which we call “decompeitition” (abbreviation for broken competition), is the opposite of the actual meaning of the word. Rather than “striving for”, decompetition comes when we “strive for”. Competitors see competition as a miniature war. They see their opponents as enemies. The goal is reduced to conquering others. Although the gap between “strive for” and “strive against” can be experienced in a variety of quiet and subtle ways, it is still a huge gap as wide as it is important.

Most people show both tendencies to some extent. We can waver between being true competitors and being decompetitors. But our inability to realize that these are actually two completely different, rather distinct processes has limited our ability to understand when, why and how negative behaviors occur in competition environments. Of course, in this short article, I can only hint at the deep differences between them and how to gain control over the mental processes at work. But I end with an important point.

If you are interested in doing your very best, if you are interested in top performance and if you want to maintain your enthusiasm and enjoyment, then true competition is a much more reliable way to get there. There’s an old locker room mythology about ‘nice guys quitting last’, but nothing can be further from the truth. Thinking of competition as a miniature battle promotes distracted thinking, lack of consistent focus, unreliable patterns of motivation, unwanted strain, and lack of adequate impulse control. True competition is not just based on sound ethics, it results in outstanding performance.

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