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December 2009

In sports, a competitive drive is invaluable. As athletes, our desire to win can push us to the next level. We have to have an internal desire to win if we are going to perform our best when it matters the most, no matter what our “win” might be.

Most of us think about competitiveness in the context of competing against others. If we win, others lose. Or, even worse, if they win, we lose. Personally, I believe this win-lose mindset is a competitive mistake. Instead, we should all be seeking out win-win scenarios that bring about real victory regardless of the outcome.

The Real Competition
Recently, I was coaching an athlete through a fitness competition. It was his first competition, and he had a desire to place in the top five. This guy had worked hard and was confident in his training.

When the day arrived, he competed very well. He was successful in that he reached or exceeded his personal best in each event, but he didn’t place in the top five. Fortunately, this man’s competitiveness was focused in the right direction. Instead of coming away defeated by his competitors, he walked away truly motivated. He realized that there was a level to the fitness competition he didn’t even know existed. That healthy mindset allowed him to move forward, get back in the gym and work harder to prepare for the next event. 
What a great example! When we allow another person’s success to motivate us to take our game to the next level, it is performance intelligence at its best.

For years, observers believed that running a sub-four-minute mile was physically unattainable, but Roger Bannister believed he could accomplish that goal. After years of training, he finally succeeded. What most people don’t know, however, is that, within eight weeks of Bannister’s record, a man named John Landy achieved the same milestone. During the next three years, 16 other runners shattered the four-minute mile.

The point: Bannister’s ground-breaking success did not defeat his competitors; it spurred them on to greater achievement.

All We Can Be
A common mistake people make in competitiveness is that they become totally focused on beating the competition.

 “What is the prize? Is it winning the race, or is it being all that God calls you to be?”

When our competitiveness is focused only on beating another person rather than taking our personal game to the next level, it puts the brakes on our own performance. Instead, we should focus on doing the best we can no matter what the competition is doing.

Another athlete I worked with—a pitcher—was heading in the wrong direction. He’d been successful as a high school athlete, even starting on the varsity team as a freshman. When he came to see me, he was in the first stages of a slump, and it didn’t take long to realize the reason for his pitching woes. His focus had changed from mastering his skills to the competition—and not competition from the other team, but from the other pitchers on his own team. He simply didn’t want to lose his place in the starting rotation.

This mindset created tremendous tension and made it difficult for him to play. A shift in his competitive focus had led to a slump in his performance.

For a positive example, consider the actions of Tiger Woods. He made a great case for competitiveness that was focused on taking his game to the next level when he chose to tweak his swing even though he was winning consistently and defeating the rest of the field. If he’d been focused solely on beating his competition, he would have kept his swing the same. But Woods knew he had more game in him, so he went through the difficult process of changing his swing to make it better. His competitiveness was focused on being the best he could be.

The Highest Level
At its core, this lesson in competitiveness relates directly back to Scripture. First Corinthians 9:24 (ESV) says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”

What is the prize? Is it winning the race, or is it being all that God calls you to be? Throughout Scripture we are reminded that we don’t need to compare ourselves to others. Rather, our comparison should be to Jesus and striving to live a life that models Him. We fix our eyes on Him, maximize the talent He has given us and don’t worry about those around us.

Colossians 3:23 (ESV) says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men...” It’s an often-quoted verse in the world of sports, and it’s completely appropriate. It shows us that we must not limit our talent by focusing on simply mastering the competition. Instead, we must focus our competitiveness on taking our talent to the highest level. In the end, that will bring the most glory to our Father.

Dr. Julie Bell is the founder and president of The Mind of a Champion (MOC), a coaching firm in Dallas that works with individuals and organizations to improve their “Performance Intelligence.” Dr. Bell received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Oklahoma State University and a master’s and doctorate of sport psychology from the University of Virginia. She also is the author of Performance Intelligence at Work: The 5 Essentials to Achieving the Mind of a Champion, available at Currently, Bell is seeking stories for her new book about athletes who have displayed mental toughness. If you are an athlete who has a testimony of confidence, focus, competitiveness or self-discipline, contact her at

--For more stories about faith and sport, visit, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.

Photo courtesy Julie Bell

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