Competition in Sports
Competition is often described as a contest, or a process of contesting, between two or more parties (organisms, individuals, or groups) for a scarce resource or good. The scarcity can result from nature or history, such as competition for limited food, or it can be created artificially, such as the good of winning a game. As the term is most often used, competition is the opposite of cooperation. Since competition is a central dynamic in most if not all sports, competition is of keen interest to sport scientists. In this entry, various forms of competition are described, the social science research on competition is reviewed, and theory and research on competitiveness is summarized.
What Is Competition?
Competition comes in many forms and is relevant to many fields of study. Economic, political, biological, evolutionary, and sport competition, for example, each have unique characteristics, along with some commonalities. Competition occurs between and among nonhuman organisms, individuals, teams, organizations, cultures, and nations, to name only some of the most obvious. Competition can be direct or indirect, subtle or intense, formal or informal. It can be zero sum, resulting in winners and losers, or allow for many variations of outcome distributions.
To define competition, most social psychologists have focused on the goal structure of situations. Morton Deutsch, for example, defined competition in terms of “negative social interdependence.” A situation is competitive if the progress or success of one party interferes with the progress or likelihood of success of other parties.
Rainer Martens proposed a definition of competition from a sport psychology perspective. For Martens, competition is a form of social evaluation; it entails comparison of individual or team performances against one another or against an objective standard of excellence. In Martens’s view, people compete because humans have an innate motive to evaluate their ability. A competitive situation is one that allows for the evaluation process through providing a rule structure that (a) defines the goal toward which action is directed and (b) defines the allowable means to try to achieve the goal.
Competition: The Social Science Research
Psychologists have studied the effects of competition for more than a hundred years. In the late 1890s, in what is often called the first sport psychology study, Norman Triplett found that cyclists performed faster when they were racing against other cyclists than when they were racing against the clock. Despite this promising initial start, subsequent research has demonstrated that for most types of tasks in most situations, competition leads to poorer performance. The exceptions are simple tasks or rudimentary skills, the performance of which can be facilitated through competition.
In his extensive if somewhat polemical review of the literature in No Contest: The Case Against Competition, Alfie Kohn concluded that competition is associated with a range of negative outcomes. As noted above, in most situations it hinders optimal performance. Competition, both interpersonal and intergroup, has also been associated with increased hostility, aggression, and prejudice. It tends to interfere with developing positive and stable self-esteem; it creates stress and anxiety, along with their negative health consequences; and it promotes conformity and reliance on external evaluation.
Many researchers, such as David and Roger Johnson, acknowledge the extensive literature demonstrating these negative consequences, but still maintain that competition can be useful. Writers in this tradition seek to distinguish healthy from unhealthy, beneficial from destructive, and productive from harmful forms of competition. Unfortunately, the distinctions are often unclear and are based more on differences of degree than of kind.
A different approach has been advanced by David Shields and Brenda Bredemeier, who offer a qualitative distinction between competition and the forms of contesting that lead to negative outcomes. They define competition as striving for excellence in a contest situation. According to this view, competition entails a combination of a contest structure with a personal orientation toward seeking excellence through the mutual challenge that opponents provide to each other. They introduce a new term, decompetition, to describe a situation in which a contest is metaphorically understood as a battle for superiority or extrinsic reward. They suggest that it is the different motivations and goals associated with decompetition that account for the negative findings prevalent in the literature.
What Is Competitiveness?
When people compete, they strive to obtain a limited goal and to compare favorably to others similarly striving. In sports, the contest-specific goal, of course, is to win. The amount of preparation, focus, determination, and energy that a person puts into striving to win is often referred to as their competitiveness. Competitive people have a strong desire to achieve and succeed, thereby demonstrating their competency to themselves and others. There are two main instruments that have been developed to measure competitiveness in sport.
Robin Vealey used achievement-goal theory to help her define and operationalize competitiveness. Correspondingly, competitiveness can take two different forms, depending on what goal the athlete is trying to achieve. Athletes can be outcome oriented (winning) or performance oriented (performing masterfully) or both. When Vealey developed the Competitive Orientation Inventory (COI), she placed the two orientations in opposition. The format of the instrument consists of a 16-cell matrix in which four levels of performance (very good, above average, below average, and very poor) are intersected with four outcomes (an easy win, a close win, a close loss, and a big loss). For each of the resultant 16 cells, the athlete indicates their level of satisfaction. Those athletes who indicate high satisfaction when they win, irrespective of how well they played, score high on outcome oriented competitiveness; in contrast, those who are most satisfied with playing well score high on performance-oriented competitiveness.
Another widely used assessment of competitiveness, called the Sport Orientation Questionnaire (SOQ), was developed by Diane Gill and Thomas Deeter. The measure assesses three orientations: competitiveness, goal orientation (a focus on personal standards), and a win orientation. The concept of competitiveness is defined as a desire to enter and strive for success in sport competition. For example, respondents are asked to indicate their extent of agreement with “I thrive on competition,” and “The best test of my ability is competing against others.”
Researchers have investigated competitiveness both as a dependent and as an independent variable. For example, researchers have generally found male athletes to be more competitive than female athletes, elite athletes to be more competitive than recreational athletes, and U.S. athletes to be more competitive than those from more collectivist cultures. In turn, competitiveness seems to predict sport involvement, poor sportsmanship, higher alcohol consumption, and sexually aggressive attitudes.