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May 14 2024

As fitness professionals we are constantly walking the tight rope between encouragement and forcefulness, motivation and insult, and failure and success


Competition is in our nature. For better, or for worse, humans can be motivated to take action by simply being exposed to another person, or a relative target, like “10 reps of pull ups.” Competition can bring together people from different regions, classes and ideologies, as the Olympic games have done since before 770 AD. Competition can push us to perform at our best, as in the case of John Landy and Roger Bannister, who in 1954 were the first two people on record to ever run a sub 4-minute mile. Our relative competitiveness can also drive us to walk a few more steps every day simply by mentioning “10,000 steps.”

Motivation can be a tool we can leverage to better ourselves, but conversely it can be an Achilles heel, distracting us from the things that are really important. As fitness professionals we are constantly walking the tight rope between encouragement and forcefulness, motivation and insult, and failure and success. As humans, we sometimes feel that winning is better than getting things right. Let’s explore the nature, nurture, and practicality of competition.

Homo sapiens have had a natural drive to compete for land and resources even as far back as 70,000 years ago when bands of Homo sapiens were compelled to secure land that was already inhabited by Neanderthals, according to Yuval Noah Harari in his popular book, Sapiens. He also suggests that this, of course, was only made possible by the ability of Homo Sapiens to cooperate with similar individuals (or “in-groups”) in a way that was more abstract than Neanderthals were capable of. This evolutionary desire to maintain control of resources may be a major factor in our drive to out-do others.

Doing more burpees than the other girl in circuit class doesn’t really offer the same resource-dependent, life or death competition that early humans faced, but it still drives us to push harder. Competitiveness might be genetic.

Authors Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson wrote in their book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning, that individual competitiveness can often vary based on dopamine levels. Genetic differences can account for varying levels of the brain chemical, some individuals who have a higher base level of dopamine might experience an “overload” during times of acute stress. In contrast, individuals with lower base levels of Dopamine might experience optimal levels, providing greater focus and excitement when placed in a competitive environment. Being generous, however, has proven to release oxytocin, and other feel-good hormones, in the altruistic person. But none of this explains why we sometimes abandon reason, or even sacrifice our own best outcomes, in order to prevent others from winning. So, many scholars argue that our general competitive spirit is based on social norms and ego far more than any evolutionary remnants.

In a popular, often repeated economic experiment called “The Ultimatum Game (Guth, W.),” participants are challenged to be altruistic, with what is usually an interesting outcome. A brief synopsis:

Participant A is given $20 and asked to decide how much to share with participant B.

Participant B gets to accept or reject A’s offer.

If B accepts, both participants keep their portion. If B rejects, neither participant gets anything. Both participants are aware of these stipulations.

What’s most unique about the outcome of this experiment is that participant B should always accept the offer. Any offer, from $0.01- $20 is economically better than 0. However, if participant A offers anything below 20%, the offer is rejected half of the time, and the rejections increase as the offer rate decreases. Researchers also find that the initial offer is affected by whether participants are part of the same in-group.

According to Mathew Hutson in his article for The Atlantic, a survey from Harvard revealed that about half of the respondents would rather that the average salary in the world be $25,000 and they earned $50,000, opposed to earning $100,000 in a world where the average is $200,000.

Surveys like this, and other research, suggest that our sense of success and failure is often relative (see Anchoring Effect), meaning that 50k is more valuable than 100k, as long as it means we make more than someone else’s 25k. Furthermore, relative happiness of a community doesn’t change when everyone’s wealth goes up, only when someone’s wealth improves in relation to others in their in-group or peer group. This effect rears its head in even more day to day activities like our bootcamp classes. When a person is performing in relation to someone for whom they can sense any similarity, they are driven to more intense output. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses, we just need to squat 10 more lbs than the Joneses.

The same phenomena drives people with their individual goals as well. For example, if a weight loss client is closer, and therefore more relative, to their weight goal, they tend to push harder. This is known as the Goal Gradient Effect (Urminsky). One of the best examples of this effect is when runners or cyclists increase their effort as they get close to the finish line. The Goal Gradient effect was also tested in a number of other settings. Coffee drinkers who had a punch card were shown to increase the pace of purchases as they got closer to a free drink. The simple nuance of counting from 10 down to 1, as opposed to 1 up to 10, can actually make a significant difference. Popular goal-setting theory for personal training clients encourages creating a number of short-term and long-term goals; this ensures that there is always a finish line nearby.

Is our competitive behavior the result of nature, unavoidable and driven by hormones, or nurture, a necessary aspect of surviving one’s culture? The answer is… both. But this means that competitiveness can be both beneficial or destructive.

Research by Ives, J.C., et al, suggests that, “The competitive environment is reported to influence greater exercise intensity in most persons”. In Ives’ research, individuals who were identified to be either competitive or non-competitive were tested in competitive and non-competitive situations. The results showed that in general, all individuals performed better in competitive situations. This means that challenges that pit our clients against each other, like a race around the park, or drive them to beat their old PR, like a new max bench press, are a great idea.

Don’t get carried away, however. A sense of failure is one of the main reasons people are hesitant to start, or stick with, a new fitness program (see Loss Aversion). It’s very important that we, as fitness professionals, help our clients develop proper, achievable goals. If you do have a bootcamp or group exercise class with competitive workouts, be intentional when grouping individuals or setting objectives. If you are offering “scaled” or modified options, it’s usually best to offer the modified version first, then present the more difficult version as a “challenge for those who need it.” This will help to reduce the possible sense of competition or failure in certain people.

The value of having well-planned goals, accountability partners and a fitness community far outweigh any risk of competitive fallouts. When we push ourselves or our clients to improve, it’s important that we stay true to those goals. Sacrificing true growth, just to ‘one-up’ others, is the biggest downfall of our competitive nature. Just like we spend time helping our clients develop functional movement and strength, we can help them develop a healthy sense of accomplishment and grit.

Andrew Gavigan is a recognized speaker in the fitness industry, master trainer, and serves as Director of Education for Aktiv Solutions. He is the founder of MostFit, a small line of unique workout equipment, a NASM and NFPT Certified Personal Trainer and Behavioral Change Specialist and has developed comprehensive fitness and exercise programs for health club & workplace wellness facilities. Andrew’s passion centers around user engagement and human behavior.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of PFP magazine.