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Great competition is at the heart of all great sport. You can watch fantastic sports people performing and be star struck, but the ability of a human being to produce something which very few can is mesmerising. Add on difficulty, such as a greater opponent or a closer game, and the match becomes even more exciting.
Competition is a great motivator for us as fans to tune in or to attend sporting events but it is not the only factor. Winning a trophy or a medal may spur us to support or an athlete to perform but there is something more intrinsic, almost tribal that adds that extra little push from all sides; a rivalry. Is rivalry more important than just general competition when it comes to pushing athletes?
Rivalry comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some of you will know how competitive a sibling rivalry can be, most of you will have at least heard of the battle between Apple and Android phone users and of course football fans will be all too aware of the debate between people who believe Lionel Messi is the best player in the world and a handful of Manchester United fans who remember the good life. Rivalries are sometimes born out of proximity or jealousy, some from a specific event, some out of success in the same period and some just out of respect and admiration.
Unless you have been following the World Athletics Championships in Doha recently, Team Ingebrigtsen is not something you may have heard of although they already have a bit of a history of famous clips and video footage. Last summer, a then 17-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen high-fived his older brother Henrik before going on to win the 5,000m European championship. In 2017, Filip Ingebrightsen became the first European to win a World Championship in 1,500m.
Their rivalry started young, as their dad mentions in an interview with the BBC. There were seven siblings in total. They used to compete with each other in everything they did. It wasn’t just swimming or skiing whilst growing up in Norway; getting in and out of the car was a race to be won. Undoubtedly, in their sheer determination to beat each other they have driven themselves to the point of greatness.
Some of the greatest performers had to have great rivals to push them to the top. Andrei Agassi and Pete Sampras had each other, “Magic” Johnson had Larry Bird and Lionel Messi has Cristiano Ronaldo. Humans perform better when the task is seen as a self-evaluation; competitive people want to beat their friends more than strangers, to be better than your rival is more important than winning a competition outright.
In fairness this is not even close to being a new concept or idea. Norman Triplett discovered cyclists put in better times with other cyclists present and that study was in 1898.
Gavin Kilduff wrote in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science: “How we behave in competition situations depends on our relationship and history of interaction with our opponent, this suggests that we may be able to boost our own levels of motivation and performance by either forming rivalries or harnessing the ones we already have. It might also get us to think about whether other individuals in our lives may view us as their rivals.”
Something I hear in amateur sports teams all the time is the idea to “not worry about the opposition” and to “focus on what we’re doing.” At the Juventus Academy in Bahrain we had the pleasure of spending time with Antonio Sacco, head of Juventus Youth Psychology, who agrees with a far superior scientific lexicon, that too many points of focus create confusion and decrease performance levels.
Personally, I do not see rivalry as falling in to this particular bracket. Don’t worry about any particular opposition but have that want to beat an opponent, the want to be the best.
At a time when a number of sports are on the rise in the region, in particular involving female athletes, I believe it is actually very beneficial to create healthy rivalry with opponents. In my opinion, you can create an environment for success involving quality coaching and success but ultimately without the intrinsic push, the self-drive to be better than everyone else in young, peak and ageing athletes’ greatness will not be achieved.
I look forward to watching Team Ingebrigtsen again because maybe they have shown us the secret to great success. We should all be high-fiving our rivals.