With the US National Track and Field Championships and the European Cup Championships underway this weekend, I think its a good time to share some the science behind winning. A new book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, reveals juicy and surprising research from scientists across the globe. There were so many interesting findings I had to share some of them. For example, believe it or not, improving performance has little to do with "positive thinking" instead it is all about something called "additive thinking." Do you know why your rival makes you better competitor? Did you know that by reframing a threat into a challenge that you can affect your lung capacity? And that the most important thing about competition is not winning!
There is so much juicy stuff to review in this book that I will break the blog into two parts. For more information about any of the tidbits below, check out it out for yourself! As a psychology major and former Olympic athlete, reading the book felt like it was written for me. In essence, it is a compilation of the science that exists on how people compete and the factors that lead to achieving excellence.
I've digested the collection of findings and turned them into some common Q&A's about competition for your benefit.
How do I get into my optimal "Zone" before competition?
TD: The Science of Winning says — “Know thyself”: What has worked for you in the past? How did you prepare for prior good performances? Reflect in your old journals and recall the build-ups to your most successful competitions. There is huge value and wisdom to be drawn from your own experiences. Know what your happy place (or pre-competition) place looks like. Who do you hang with? What do you eat? What training do you do? What kind of routine gets you in YOUR zone to compete best? Do you like to be relaxed, like to be alone, sociable etc? When in race-mode before a competition, you shouldn't jeopardize your training by doing stuff that stresses you out-- figure it out and get in control. If you are stress ball on a daily basis, well, expect to be a bit more stressed. If you are pretty chillaxed normally, expect to be a little more stressed leading into a competition. As the old adage goes, know thyself!
How do I deal with anxiety that makes me want to hide and not run?
TD: The Science of Winning says — Don’t FIGHT anxiety, reframe it.
Often times when a race is looming near stress and anxiety can seep into you mood, behavior and your physical body. That is normal and to a certain extent should be welcomed (it shows you care, which is necessary to be competitive). However, if anxiety overcomes you, it can feel toxic and debilitating. If you are feeling too much pressure, like, in a "I can’t breathe get me out of here" sort of way, instead of finding a rock to hide under, try reframing the “threat” of the competition into a “challenge.” It is close to impossible to perform optimally under threat.
"While top competitors do need to learn to perform in threat situations— because they are sometimes unavoidable— most competitors will perform better in a challenge situation. And in many situations, changing the framing of a task from threat to challenge is all it may take for success." — Bronson, Merryman
The solution can simply be to take the perspective that your nerves are a positive state of excitement. Remember that nervous energy can actually help improve performance! In the slide below you see there are many physiological differences to a perceived threat versus a challenge. Seeing a stressor (race) as challenge can result in superior focus and faster decision making, increased lung capacity and increased energy production. Anyone up for the challenge?
Is having rivals stupid and childish?
TD: The Science of Winning Says — Despite popular opinion, comparing yourself to your rivals can make you improve and perform better! A specific rival can help you have a focus when competing with a lot of people. Unbeknownst to them, they help you avoid the "N effect" which is "the tendency to lose motivation and intensity when faced with a large field of competitors. The additional focus and effort brought to bear when competing against someone with whom you have a lot in common, especially when you face them on a recurring basis."- Po Bronson, TopDog.
But, beware of overtly bestowing your gratitude to your rival. Studies show that becoming friendly with your rivals can downgrade the fierceness of competition. In turn this can also have a physiological affect resulting in a dampened hormonal response required for competitiveness.
What about "positive thinking"?
TD: The Science of Winning Says — Although there is overwhelming acceptance that positive thinking can improve your everyday health and wellness (studies show it does), when it comes to competing, forget about positive versus negative thinking. Research has found that what is most effective long term is "Additive Thinking". Additive thinking is considering the moves you should make or ways to do things better. It is more important to focus on what you need to do. Forget about what you did "wrong", ie.subtractive thinking, and instead think about how to do things better in the future.
"Those who employ additive counterfactuals perform better over time." — Top Dog, The Science of Winning.
What is the most important attribute of successful people?
Ashley Merryman, has concluded from her research that successful people have what she calls agency. "Agency is that inherent belief in yourself — the ability to have a vision and know you can go for it. The alternative is to look over your shoulder to get your friends' approval."
BELIEVE AND ACHIEVE! WOOP!
Why compete at all?
Every now and again I wonder why we even bother with competition in the first place. What makes competition so enticing and important to so many people? Why do millions of people lace up shoes every weekend to do a local road race when they can just run alone? The authors of Top Competition have summarized that:
"The real benefit of competition is not winning — it is improved performance. Competition liberates, or generates, hidden reserves of additional effort. Competitors discover an extra gear. And in the right circumstances, this happens even if you ultimately don’t win the contest. Competition facilitates improvement."
Although I am fully aware of important life lessons I've learned through running, I still think there is a misconception in society that competition is ONLY about winning. It is great to read about the true goodness we all can gain through competing, and how it’s something to welcome and not hide from. In part two of this blog, I’ll explain the important and favorable effects of competition on society and human potential. Because of sports positive impact on a global and humanitarian level, this research makes me proud to be a sportswoman. Stay tuned for lots more...
Please share this article with friends and family who like to compete and want to improve their game!
Roisin McGettigan-Dumas, is an Olympian, sports psychology consultant and co-author of Believe Training Journal (VeloPress), available now.