The science of rivalry driving better results in sport

The science of rivalry driving better results in sport

It was a near-perfect day for a track meet. Yes, at 84°F (29°C), it might have been a touch warm, but for the final event in the first day of the Diamond League championships in Eugene, Oregon’s Hayward Field, that wasn’t much of a problem. The event was the mile, and even at 29°C, it’s a little hard to overheat in a mile.

In athletics, there are three premier championships: the Olympics, the World Athletic Championships, and the Diamond League, composed mostly of meets in Europe, but as far-flung as Shanghai, Doha, and Rabat.

And Eugene.

Except for a brief hiatus during COVID, when Hayward Field was shut down not just because of the virus but for remodeling, Eugene has always been a favorite among the athletes, who appreciate its enthusiastic fans and sense of itself as TrackTown USA. Not to mention the history-drenched field itself, a $US200 million facility dedicated solely to athletics.

Within a lap, two runners had risen to the fore: Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway and Yared Nuguse of the US.

In a perfect position overlooking the first curve, friends and members of Nuguse’s team, ON Athletic Club, had bought a block of seats, donned odd-looking headsets they said were supposed to be geese, and screamed “Go Goose” each time he went by, loudly enough to drown out everyone else in the vicinity. Yared the Goose. That’s his nickname.

The word compete comes from the Latin to strive or contend together

Sports psychologist Jeff Simons of California State University, East Bay

By the final lap, everyone else was out of the picture and the stadium was in an uproar. “We’re getting everything we could have wanted out of this race,” distance-running commentor Kara Goucher excitedly shouted on NBC television. “There are two men right now, two men on world-record pace!”

Ultimately neither quite got it. Ingebrigtsen crossed the line in 3:43.73, the third-fastest mile in history, only 0.60 seconds (about two strides) away from being the best ever. Nuguse was a half-step behind in 3:43.97, breaking a long-standing American record and logging the fourth fastest time in history.

Later it was revealed that Ingebrigtsen knew Nuguse was after the American record, which at the time stood at 3:46.91, and at a poorly covered press conference before the race told him that if he wanted it, he should hold on behind him (Ingebrigtsen) as far he possibly could.

It’s the type of remark that can be seen as cocky, but it’s also the type of throwing down the gauntlet that can lead to greatness.

From 1979 to 1985, British rivals Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, and Steve Cram lowered the world record for the mile six times in six years. Since then, it has only fallen twice.

Are Ingebrigtsen and Nuguse, along with British runners Jake Wightman and Josh Kerr (each of whom have beaten Ingebrigtsen in major championships) the Ovett-Coe-Cram of the 2020s? Obviously, only time will tell. But there is science, and it says we may be headed into the type of era that made Ovett, Coe, and Cram so great.

One researcher is Gavin Kilduff of New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, who got into the field because the academic literature of the time tended to depict competition as demotivating. “That was puzzling to me,” he says.

[P]eople ran about 5 seconds faster per kilometer in races where one of their top rivals showed up than in races where they didn’t

The problem, he eventually realized, was that the psychological literature examined only “forced” competition created by the experimenters, rather than freely entered into by the competitors, while the economic and business literature tended to take an excessively rationalist view of human behavior, in which everyone hopes to maximize their likely gain and views the presence of competition as reducing their chances of making it worth their effort to try.

There is, of course, some validity to these approaches, but, Kilduff says, they ignore “a bunch of other stuff,” starting with the fact you might have a history with whoever you’re competing against, “[and that] could be driving your desire to win.”

Since that initial realization, he has conducted numerous studies, one of the most interesting involved running. Focusing on a running club in Western Pennsylvania, his team scoured the Internet for results from races members of the club had run. From these, they picked out competitors who raced frequently and identified those whose repeated interactions indicated that they might be rivals.

They then compared these runners’ performances in races in which their rivals had been present to those in which they weren’t. And voila, people ran about 5 seconds faster per kilometer in races where one of their top rivals showed up than in races where they didn’t.

At one level, this isn’t surprising. “The word compete comes from the Latin to strive or contend together,” says sports psychologist Jeff Simons of California State University, East Bay.

It may also help if athletes have a strong base of friends and fans, cheering them on, like those Nuguse had in Eugene, with their ridiculous headsets and screams of “Go Goose!” whenever he came within earshot. When that type of thing occurs, Simons says, “there is somehow energy transferred to the performers. We often see this when regional or national pride is at stake.”

Kilduff agrees, citing a study of soccer players that found their pre-match testosterone levels to be higher in matches against traditional rivals. Another study he himself worked on found that college students were more engaged and likely to take greater risks in competitions against people they thought were from their schools’ traditional rivals. 

That makes rivals important, because we use them benchmarks against which to assess ourselves.

These findings, Kilduff says, are related to what is known as social comparison theory, which suggests that the way we evaluate our own performance is by comparing it to others’. That makes rivals important, because we use them benchmarks against which to assess ourselves.

Another possible factor is something South African exercise physiologist Timothy Noakes has called the central governor theory of fatigue. It argues that fatigue isn’t just the result of our bodies hitting physiological limits but of our brains trying to keep us from getting dangerously close to those limits.

This is undoubtedly a good self-defense mechanism but it’s possible our brains might be unnecessarily conservative. “The fact an athlete can still move at the end of race means that something was reserved,” Simons says.

Rivalries, he says, can change that in two ways. First, they can demonstrate that if your rival can do something you once thought impossible, maybe you can too. Secondly, in the effort to beat your rival, you might lose track of what you previously saw as the limits, “because [you] are concentrating on the competition itself.”

Noakes agrees. His central governor model, he says, came from his perspective as a physiologist “realizing that the brain had to be in charge.” The psychology of how to deal with that is a different field.

“No athlete ever produced an absolute ultimate performance, because if he or she had, he or she would have died,” he says. “They could always have run 0.1 seconds faster, had there been the need.”

He then cites a 1982 book by James “Jumbo” Elliott, who coached Villanova University from 1949 to 1981. “He is remembered as the greatest coach of milers in the world,” Noakes says. “He basically said that runners learn from each other, and [in college] the key is to get superior athletes who can teach the freshmen what is expected.”

Because maybe the ancient Romans had it right. Competition really does mean striving together for greatness.

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