Friday, December 4, 2009

Competition

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going!” ~Jim Ryun

When Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile in 1954 it seemed he'd achieved the impossible. But once the barrier was broken runners like John Walker and Steve Scott have done it more than 100 times.

The manner in which Bannister broke the 4 minute mile barrier is intriguing. He needed another very fast runner to set a fast pace and against whom he could compete. Motivated by a competitive spirit Bannister drilled deeper into his personal reserves to push himself beyond what he was capable of on his own.

I remember going to a track meet while in college in Athens, Ohio in the early 1970's. I'd heard the runner Dave Wottle of Bowling Green was going to be there and we might see a four minute mile. He ran fast but there was no one else of his caliber and we did not see a record that day. Wottle, famous for the golf hat he wore while running (BGU Orange that day), did go on to win Olympic Gold in the 1972 Olympics in the 800 meter run.

The word competition has gotten a bad name, however, in the last few decades. Maybe in part because of our failure to similarly teach good sportsmanship to winners? The response in some regions of the country has been to eliminate it. Whether hockey or soccer or baseball, the aim (some say) is to enjoy the game, not to keep score. At the end of play, everyone gets a trophy.

Unfortunately, in the real world not everyone gets a trophy. Forty people apply for a job and one ends up with a paycheck. Three salespeople call on a big account, only one gets the contract. Many of the lessons of competitive sports can be applied directly to the bigger experience of life.

This is not to say every situation should be turned into a wrestling match. It is much better to create win-win situations in relationships, and sales should still be about service to what the customer really needs, not taking their scalps. But competition does have benefits.

Companies produce better products or services when they know there is the potential of other companies taking their business. Performing under pressure can act as a prod to help individuals and businesses "rise to the occasion." Deadlines and goals force us to spring into action rather than become sluggish.

Ribbons, trophies, medals, prizes all may seem silly in the grand scheme of things, but when all is said and done, most of us produce our best work when we know we'll be rewarded for the efforts or sacrifices we make.

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