An Invitation to Compete

One of the topics we've been talking a lot about lately on the baseball staff I am a part of is being competitive.  Is it something that can be instilled in players or not?  Is it competitive nature or competitive nurture?  One of these conversations took place the day after the Baseball Hall of Fame inductees were announced.  When I got home from school I saw an interview with John Smoltz on Intentional Talk.  If you heard an interview with Smoltzie last week, you undoubtedly listened to people ask him to discuss  how competitive he was.  Smoltz has a reputation as someone who wanted to win whether he was on the mound, the basketball court, or the golf course.  Many say this characteristic helped him be as successful as he was in baseball.  What Smoltz said about his competitive ways was that his dad instilled lessons in him while growing up that stuck with him throughout his baseball career.  This would lead me to think it was more of a case of competitive nurture rather than nature.  In other words, baby John Smoltz didn't pop out dicing hitters up with 87 MPH sliders and fist pumping.  He learned to be competitive along the way.

So what can we do as coaches to try to aid in the development of a competitive spirit in our players?  Well, for one we can compete.  I am a big fan of competition in practice.   You hear many times about the importance of making practice as game-like as possible on a consistent basis.  The idea is that making practice as much like the game as we can will help players to have a feeling of "been there, done that" in the game and just react.  While there is a lot to be said for repetition and building the muscle memory of taking a lot of reps, there is something to being gamelike in practice.  If  you practice at a slow speed and all is always loosey goosey, then come game time things may just be a little too quick for players.  Another reason competition is great in practice is it can work to make players compete (no kidding, right?).  But seriously, the more players compete the more likely they are learning those lessons that John Smoltz took advantage of as he grew up.  There are scoreboards in sport and in life.  You may even find that your players are actually more competitive than you thought.  Pete Carroll has a mantra of "always compete," and he lives and coaches by that mantra.  The Seahawks have Turnover Thursday in which the defense fights to get the ball away from the offense.  Richard Sherman says Turnover Thursday embodies what the Seahawks are all about as a team.  So elite football players aren't too cool to be competitive during practice?  It is tough to argue with the results Pete has gotten in Seattle.

What can I do as a player?  One of my favorite pieces of advice about competition is from Gary Mack.  He said, "A person who is mentally tough looks at competition as a challenge to rise up rather than a threat to back down ."  A simple Google search yielded a definition of challenge that I love:  "a call to take place in a contest or competition."  Wow!  A challenge is calling you on the phone and asking you to participate.  It's sending you an invitation that it would really appreciate if you accept.  A threat, on the other hand, is defined as "a statement of an intention to inflict pain, injury, or damage."  Some athletes see competition this way far too often.  The competition may cause damage to how I feel about myself.  I don't want to be injured or damaged so I am going to shy away from this competition thing you speak of.  It's a version of a flight response in a fight or flight situation.  If this is a variation of what you find yourself thinking, it may be time to check your perspective.  What is the worst thing that happens if you lose?  What is the worst thing that will happen if someone beats you out at the position you play?  Is it really a life or death type of situation?  Are you really holding all of your value as a person based on a win or a position?  Simple answers to simple questions, but it can be easier said than done at times.  Taking another angle, what about seeing competition as an opportunity to be the threat towards your opponent?  The aggressor in sports is usually the one who is rewarded with victory.  Why not trust your preparation and talent to impose your will on the opponent?  One thing we can do as coaches to foster a healthy perspective among players is to truly show how we value each member on a team regardless of role.  This is something I think I did a poor job of early in my coaching career.  I think I have improved, but I can always get better.  My guess is you can as well.

In conclusion, I do think we can become more competitive.  Coaches can assist players in becoming more competitive.  There is no cookie-cutter approach, but creating competition in preparation is certainly a start.  Players, see competition as a challenge instead of a threat.  Accept the invitation today to compete in whatever it is that you are doing.  Chances are you will enjoy the experience, and no damage will occur.

Side Note:  Another great message from the Smoltz interview was he said something about how he was taught to compete and try to win but never at the expense of the integrity of the game or your opponent.  This cannot be overstated.  Compete your butt off, but be willing to accept that your best effort may not always be good enough on the scoreboard.  That is okay and part of what make sports great.

Here is a link to Pete Carroll's "Always Compete" Mantra


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