Healthy competition is exactly what it sounds like: a desire to succeed at your efforts and win whatever prize is at stake.
Whether it’s athletics, academics or any other aspect of life, a competitive nature can inspire you to perform at your best and even exceed your own expectations.
But competition is highly valued in our society and many people measure their value by how much they achieve—meaning if you’re not winning, you’re not just losing, you’re a loser.
In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) recently issued guidelines for treating boys and men that specifically address the potential harms that an overly competitive nature can cause, especially when combined with the stoicism, dominance and aggression that boys are also taught to emulate.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns that putting children under pressure to win or always do exceedingly well can lead to cheating and interfere with their social development.
Cheating is common among small children who are still learning the rules. As they approach adolescence, however, their sense of fairness prevails and cheaters are no longer tolerated.
“Children tend to cheat, or set their own rules, when they are engaged in games or schoolwork that is too complex for them to handle,” says the AAP.
Just as avoiding regular medical checkups can affect health, bending the rules to avoid complex problems can go on to interfere with personal and professional growth throughout life.
And when it comes to athletics and academics, a child might have the hard skills—speed, strength, intelligence—before they are ready for true competition.
“If the child is subjected to competition and heavy training before psychological development is ready, the results can be disastrous,” the AAP reports.
Early on, the goal on the field and in the classroom should be a positive experience rather than a higher score.
Focusing on winning instead of on doing your best also misses an important opportunity—to learn from losing.
Young children find it easy to get back up, dust themselves off and try again after falling down. Without experiencing small losses early, they are unprepared for the inevitable challenges and setbacks they will encounter throughout their lives.
So what’s the best way to keep your competitive edge without letting it take over?
According to the APA, it’s one simple rule: Keep it friendly.
When you’re competing with someone else, make sure you both share a mutual respect and are working toward similar goals. When competition is friendly and respectful, you compete side by side, motivating each other to do your best, and both of you benefit from trying to “win.”
Keep an eye out for too much focus on comparing and out-doing each other. If you’re searching for a weakness to exploit, you’re also going to be defending against the same from your competitor.
That unnecessary stress and distrust will interfere with your relationship—and distract you from your goal!
And remember that “keep it friendly” applies to competing with yourself, too.
Think about what motivates you to do your best. If your motivator is external—money, recognition, the approval of someone you look up to—then you are more likely to let the desire to win outweigh your relationships or principles.
When your motivation is internal—wanting to become healthier, produce quality work, have a positive impact—you naturally are able to integrate your desire to win with the people and beliefs that matter to you.
If your competitive nature is interfering with your life, talk with your primary care provider.
This article was reviewed by the Carilion Clinic Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Medicine.