Is the Desire to Win Nature or Nurture?

I confess. If there was a program called Competitors Anonymous, I’d be a strong contender to be in it. For years I vigorously tried to assert that I wasn’t competitive — that I didn’t care if I didn’t win, for fear that such a trait would imply that I hadn’t properly matured. That is despite the fact that secretly it’s always made me nuts that my husband usually beats me at cards. And yes, there’s video of my then 6-year-old daughter crying when I couldn’t stop myself from sneaking passed her in a ski race despite giving her enough of a head start that she was meant to win.

The good news is after 16 years in the sports and fitness industry where I’ve studied every aspect of athletically-minded consumers, I’ve learned that I am most certainly not alone. There’s a giant contingent of people just like me in this country — around 30 million between the ages of 16 and 64 — who psychologically “type” as a competitive athlete. How do you know if you’re part of my tribe? Plenty of research agencies have developed sophisticated surveys that you can take to figure it out, but from what I’ve seen, it’s pretty easy to spot. If you struggle to let your kids win in a game of monopoly or if you’re aware that the person running on the treadmill next to you is running at a faster speed and it causes you to INCREASE your speed, then there’s a good chance you’re one of us. You probably have vivid memories of childhood wins and losses, and there’s a good chance that you beat yourself up at work when a colleague gives a better presentation than you do. You can turn pretty much anything into a competition: karaoke, trivia battles, dance floor moves — whatever it is, you can find a way to win. Just yesterday when I asked one of my colleagues if we won our match in the corporate kickball league, he was quick to explain our loss with important learnings and tactics for us to win the next game, but even quicker to let me know that despite this sting of the result, “we won the happy hour decisively” afterwards. Yep, he’s in my tribe!

I’ve often wondered to myself whether this competitiveness wiring is as deeply ingrained as being an introvert or an extrovert — a psychological trait that we are born with — or whether it is something that we develop from the environment in which we are raised. So much has been written about the generation of the participation trophy, the era of the last 20 years when we decided to reward kids with trophies just for showing up instead of pushing them to “win fair and square” the way previous generations were raised. So on the surface, if you believe the competitive streak is developed rather than genetic, it would be logical to hypothesize that there would be fewer millennial “competitive athletes” than in previous generations.

But as someone working in the fitness industry, I’d say that hypothesis is dead wrong. The spirit of competition is driving deep engagement in the most innovative areas of fitness programming today. Take Strava — the social network for athletes — where people can track bike rides, runs and other workouts and compare them with others. The blog articles giving tips on ways to claim a KOM (King of the Mountain) spot in the Strava network are thriving. Or my own company Flywheel Sports, the indoor cycling workout that enables riders to track their own performance during the ride and compete with others in the room by tracking their progress on our Torq Board. Research shows that our riders heavily skew towards “competitive athletes” because they find our competitive offering to be their most enjoyable kind of fitness. Recently, we launched a “medals” program so that our riders could compete over longer periods of time quickly to find our riders seizing the opportunity to post and share their wins in social media.

What’s also interesting is that the competitive athlete type is fairly balanced among men and women with 60% of the competitive athlete tribe in the United States being male and 40% being female. I have often been asked the question at professional networking conferences if it’s OK as a woman to be competitive. I say HELL YEAH! Not only is it OK, but it’s also quite natural for so many of us.

Being competitive is an incredible internal engine to drive personal achievement — in fitness, in the workplace and in life. Every day I find inspiration in the community that we serve at Flywheel. These people aren’t just winning the 45 minutes that they are in our class, but they are setting their own personal best goals and crushing them. They speak of the big life challenges that they are tackling, fueled by a deep desire to improve their own performance and “win” at those challenges they set for themselves.

Which brings me back to those participation trophies. According to Ashley Merryman, Author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, “kids as young as four or five years old have been shown to know very well who played better and who played worse. When everyone gets a trophy, those who played better feel cheated and those who played worse realize that they didn’t deserve it, which makes the reward lose its power.”

It seems to me that those trophies have ended up being pretty damn ineffective. Thankfully, they don’t appear to have done anything to reduce the competitive spirit among those naturally wired that way. However, it’s likely for those not so instinctively driven to win that these trophies sap motivation, giving a false sense that achievement comes easy. And buckle your seatbelt for this piece of news… it’s been estimated that local branches of the American Youth Soccer Organization spend up to 12% of their yearly budgets on trophies AND the trophy and award industry overall is worth roughly $3 billion a year in the United States and Canada. $3 BILLION DOLLARS! Meanwhile, it’s been documented for years that low income kids are left behind when it comes to youth sports participation because they simply can’t afford to participate.

Here’s a thought: Next time your kids are given a participation trophy, how about giving it back and having a conversation with the coach about re-deploying those dollars to get more kids into sports? By developing that winning spirit, who knows what those kids might go onto achieve later in life. I certainly know some good fitness programs they’ll enjoy!

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

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