Working as an allied health professional requires the competent performance of managerial functions and clinical skills in the extremely dynamic environment of health care. These skills are surely valuable in raising a 4 year old girl…….. They’re not……… years of training in conflict management, effective communication and negotiation are reduced to “I’ll time you”. Yes, I use my daughter’s competitive tendency to get things done, and I do it all the time. If I didn’t we’d be late for Montessori, she would never wash her teeth or go to the toilet and she may well suffer from a detrimental vitamin deficiency, remaining three foot six inches tall, due to lack of food. This competitive spirit is a result of her increasing competence as she hits developmental milestones. It gives her clear objective proof that she is improving at “life” and she loves to boast when she completes a new task (Priewasser et al., 2013). So, using competition has become my most used parenting tool. I would like to pretend it is an effort to prepare Molly for the competiveness of the world in which she’s growing, but it’s really not. My motivations are purely selfish. It just gets stuff done!
Unlike children many recreational runners deny competitive tendencies…… “Oh no I’m not competitive, I just like to get out and run”…….. Pure rubbish surely! Claims of not noticing when someone passes them in the race or at training……they have to be lying! They must enjoy passing people, feeling stronger, and ultimately beating them. Or on the very rare occasion, hunting down a fellow runner, tucking in behind them so they can hear footsteps and heavy breathing before blasting past them in the last 200 metres. I am clearly a “secretive competitor”. But why? I have no chance of ever winning a club race, but I can break personal records by running faster or farther.
There is an expectation in running, as in life, that we should consistently progress and develop ourselves. At least with running this progress is easily measured in numbers. Running faster and for longer is a reassuring triumph, achieved through training. But in order to achieve this training must be progressive and planned, utilising the theory of the general adaptation syndrome described by Hans Seyle in the 1930s. Seyle suggested that the challenge of increased training forces the body to mount an immediate response, then a long lasting adjustment to the exposure to this stress – basically forcing the body to get fitter and stronger. (Selye, 1950) The first phase of the syndrome is the alarm stage, which is the initial response to an increase in training load. In the second resistance stage, the body adapts to the stress of training and strengthens; this is the point at which gains are made. The last stage is known as the exhaustion stage, and is to be avoided. At this point energy reserves are depleted; improvements and adaptation are no longer possible. Unfortunately athletes’ ambition can often outrun their ability leading to injury and sickness (Gabbett & Ullah, 2012). But if you want to run faster and longer you have to push yourself and take the risk.
It has been known since as early as 1908 that in order to improve we must step out of our “comfort zone” and enter a state of relative anxiety (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). The comfort zone is a region in which actions and performance fit into habitual behaviour thereby reducing pressure and risk – it’s easier to sit on the couch, stick within your 5k distance, not to reach for better. Yes, this offers mental security and possibly ensures low anxiety and reduced stress levels, but improvements don’t live here. Acute stress – short-lived, not chronic – primes the brain for improved performance. Our brains and bodies perform better when our stress hormones are slightly elevated provided it doesn’t cause physical tension – we need to be a bit scared (Kirby et al., 2013). Being able to feel the anxiety of competition, but control and channel it, is ideal for optimizing performance and preventing injury. Comfort brings boredom and monotony, it is short sighted and lazy. Yet we now strive to achieve it. But maybe, like molly, if we embraced our competitiveness it may force us to reach outside the routine to experience the joy and fun of getting better at “life”. You may even run a personal best……. “I’ll time you”!
Gabbett TJ & Ullah S. (2012). Relationship between running loads and soft-tissue injury in elite team sport athletes. J Strength Cond Res 26, 953-960.
Kirby ED, Muroy SE, Sun WG, Covarrubias D, Leong MJ, Barchas LA & Kaufer D. (2013). Acute stress enhances adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2. eLife 2.
Priewasser B, Roessler J & Perner J. (2013). Competition as rational action: why young children cannot appreciate competitive games. J Exp Child Psychol 116, 545-559.
Selye H. (1950). Stress and the general adaptation syndrome. Br Med J 1, 1383-1392.
Yerkes RM & Dodson JD. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18, 459-482.