Mind over Matter – How Close Competition Can Spur You On… Scientifically.

Posted February 4, 2018 by Kayla Prochnow

Article Highlights:

  • Having a close competitor increases performance.
  • It really is a mental game in that so long as you believe the competition is close, you'll get the boost in performance.
  • Academic Competition Coaches can use this knowledge to spur students on just as much as athletic competitions can.

Imagine this. You’re about to begin a race at the starting line, and the gun goes off. You start running as fast as you can, but when you look next to you, no one is there. Do you slow down? Do you keep pushing yourself to hit a faster time? Competition almost always promotes better performance. You’d likely see that no one is near you and just coast to the finish. If you could hear the breathing of a competition, then you’d use that as motivation to run faster and harder.

Much like athletes, students performing in academic competitions can also benefit from this proximity.  When competition is close, we push ourselves harder. If there’s a clear winner, then the motivation to dominate decreases. So how can we use this competitive factor to encourage participants to perform at their best without the task becoming overwhelming? What is the sweet spot?

Researchers published work in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise expressly shows athletic performances and successes as being mental. They found that for athletes to excel in competitions, it’s truly "mind over matter.”

The study followed cyclists as they raced through a 2,000-meter virtual course five times. These cyclists were encouraged to pedal their fastest times while monitoring themselves on the screen with no other competitors. In the final trial, another cyclist’s avatar was introduced. In reality, this new competitor was racing at the cyclist’s previous best time.

With a new opponent on the track, what do you think happened? The cyclists almost as a whole kicked it up a notch and pushed themselves harder with 12 of the 14 performing 1.7% faster. In short, this study along with others shows that having a close competitor creates and delivers better overall performances by using our brain to hack into an anaerobic energy reserve.

Coaches and students alike often examine the opposing team in any kind of competition. We want to see what kind of competition we’re up against. We look at their past performances and make assumptions about how likely they are to beat us. What we decide in this analysis has a great mental impact on how well we ultimately perform.

If we think that our team will crush the competition in our next tournament judging by the other teams’ previous performances, then we might not study as hard, be as vocal in pushing our teammates, or contributing as much during practice. Basically, we’ll feel comfortable enough to slack off a little bit. This feeling of comfort is dangerous because it doesn’t give your team the drive to go that extra mile when competing.

Instead, we can take a lead from Dr. Jo Corbett, the lead author of the study mentioned above. Rather than just posting any random competitor’s time to see how her subjects would increase performance, she posted the actual cyclist’s previous best run. This made it an extremely close race no matter what – you’re trying to beat your best!

So what academic competition coaches can do (or any coach for that matter) is try to setup close competitions no matter who you’re going up against. Challenge your students to beat their own best. Think of other ways to make the competition close in their minds.

Having a close competitor in any competition is the equivalent of light a fire underneath your mental engine. You have no choice but to kick it into high gear. Students should not only use other teams as comparisons but use their own bests to help spur each other on. By practicing against each other, teams can resolve any flaws in their knowledge or tactics. They'll push each other to improve, which will ultimately help them succeed when it comes time to face another team. But remember to also focus on achieving excellence as the goal. It’s not about beating the competitor, but demonstrating excellence at the task.