How do you view your competitors? Historically, athletes have been conditioned to view their competitors as enemies, with their sole purpose being motivation to train harder and perform at a higher level. In some instances, like American football, it is taken to the extreme that every competition is like “going into battle”, carrying a literal war metaphor. This outlook has a narrowing affect on the experience sport can give the athlete, particularly in the sport of track and field. Competition is the meeting of many minds from different parts of the country and world. Its ok to draw a line on the field, go toe to toe, and still chuckle over a beer later.
When I was at Kenston High School, I had a friend I knew from throwing, Jim Walter from Solon High School. Solon was our schools biggest rivalry in football and I was really excited to play against him and wanted to show my talents against his as he was a very good athelte too. I did not have much opportunity to play directly against him in the game given how play calls turned out, so I made a point to have a chat after the game.
At Kenston, the doors for team locker rooms are just 100ft apart in an alcove of parking lot between the maintenance department and the large structure of the music room. In this area players, coaches and parents gather for hugs, celebration and american sport consortium. But in this small area, no one ever mingled with the other team. There was an imaginary line between school groups that no player ever crossed.
I saw Jim talking to his parents, so before going into the locker room I seized my opportunity. In full uniform, still carrying my helmet, I crossed Kenston’s no man’s land to see my friend, the giant offensive tackle. I immidiately was stared at by Solon coaches, perhaps wondering if I might insight riot or the like. Even Jim seems surprised that I came over to talk to him under the circumstances. It was a great visit, one of my favorite moments from high school football. When I returned to my locker room just a few moments later, my coaches were not impressed, non-verbally rebuking me in front of the team. My team mates followed suit with behaviour and words of disapproval because I had “talked to the enemy”. I knew I was in the wrong sport.
It’s shortsighted to view competitors as simply enemies. Most people live to be 70+ years old, but a high school or collegiate career only lasts four years on average, and even professional careers are short in comparison to an entire lifespan.
Simply put, people outlast sports. Establishing a friendly relationship with competitors provides long term benefits that exceed your career as an athlete. Whether it’s needing a place to train, seeking technical advice, or even building your professional network, maintaining a friendly rivalry will open up doors for you in the future.
Additionally, friendly rivalries will come in handy when you enter big stages. Whether it’s a state or national championship, or even the Olympics, competitors you’re familiar with can quickly turn into friends. If nerves and anxiety set in, that friendly rival can serve as a interim teammate.
Today’s top-level shot putters are a great example of this. They maintain a competitive rivalry while still being friendly with each other. The old adage, “It takes a village”, rings especially true in track & field; except for the sprinters, their egos would never allow rival friendships. Haha.
Finally, friendly rivalries make the sport more enjoyable. Whether you view track & field as a team sport or not, growing, competing, and succeeding with friends improves the overall experience of any sporting event. Consider these things as you continue throughout this season.