Competitiveness is a valuable commodity in sports. The desire to win helps develop critical character skills such as determination, perseverance, and a fierce work ethic. However, competitiveness is a strong emotion and one that can easily overwhelm young athletes. If not managed properly, this feeling can be detrimental to an individual’s performance and can wreak havoc on a team’s chemistry. I have witnessed many a player yelling at their teammates, crying or becoming frustrated and losing their composure because their competitiveness completely overpowered them. As coaches we never want to squash that sense of competitiveness because the passion and desire that comes with it is invaluable. However, young athletes need a way to manage this intense emotion, so it doesn’t sabotage their performance or the chemistry of their team.
The trick to managing the feeling of competitiveness is not to diminish it, but to balance it with something else that is equally important to successful team play. That something else is compassion. Competitiveness in its purest and strongest form is a self-centered feeling. The phrase “I need to win” would probably be the most common thought found in highly competitive athletes. That desire can be a powerful force when competing, but when it is not tempered in young athletes whose emotional regulation skills are still developing, it can sometimes prove to be more destructive than positive. When overwhelming competitiveness rears its ugly head, it can result in unsportsmanlike behaviors such as blaming teammates, outbursts, meltdowns, shut-downs, and sometimes dangerous play on the field. Not only will these behaviors impede the performance of the individual player, they can also be a toxic deterrent to the development of a positive team dynamic and can leave lasting negative impressions on everyone at a sporting event.
When we teach young athletes to be compassionate we teach them to think, behave, and play for something bigger than themselves – this is a basic tenet of team sports. The most successful teams adopt a “We before Me” mentality where everything they do and work for is for the team. Mia Hamm, one of the most competitive athletes of all time said it best when she stated, “I am a member of a team, and I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion.”
Even when athletes compete against each other in practice it is always for the sole purpose of raising and improving the skill and performance of all its members. Compassion needs to be taught and expected on a team because it is the combination of feelings that helps the highly competitive athlete develop the social and self-regulation skills needed to become a composed and positive member of the team.
Competing with compassion does not mean we teach players to care less about winning, it means we teach them to care more about striving together as a team. Equal parts “me” and “we” is the recipe for developing complete players and ultimately the leaders we want on and off the field. This only comes with an understanding that the true nature of competing is working to raise everybody up, not just themselves.