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Competitive Fire – Favourable Odds and Conditions

This is the last post in a series of articles I have written on competition. The first three articles can be found below:

In this article, we will examine several variables that affect competitive fire and overall performance. Some of these variables can be manipulated to improve the chances of success. Since competition is something we must face at some point in our lives, it is advantageous to know how to stack the odds in our favour.

In Top Dog, Po Bronson states that kids can do better in an exam if they take it in a room with less people as opposed to a large exam hall (you can find out more about this below). If you knew that taking an exam in a room with less people could improve your performance, wouldn’t you choose the smaller venue?

What other factors affect competitive performance? Let’s find out…

Practice vs Competition

Competitive Fire - OutliersIn Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Outliers, he wrote that it takes 10000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything. Anders Ericsson clarified that it had to be deliberate practice:

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance. – James Clear

In Top Dog, Po Bronson added that you can play the piano perfectly after 10000 hours of practice, but it will never be the same as performing in front of a crowd. Similarly, it is different playing a chess game for fun versus playing in a competition. When you’re competing or performing for a crowd, the stakes are raised. How well you do depends on your game head – your ability to put out your best under stressful circumstances.

10000 hours of practice is only helpful up to a certain point. Beyond that, you will need to develop your “game head” in order to improve your true performance skills. The only way to do this is to practice in a high stakes environment (or perform before an audience).

That leads us to the next point…

Who’s Watching Who and When

According to Po Bronson in Top Dog, how an audience affects your performance depends on a number of factors:

  • If you are still learning, having an audience can impair your performance; if you have already mastered the task, an audience can spur you to perform better. The only exception is when the task is easy to begin with, in which case, an audience won’t really affect you.
  • For kids, the effect of having Mum and Dad watching their competitions depends on whether their parents are present during practice. When parents turn up only for competitions, they become a mental distraction for the child. So if you want to watch your kids perform, make sure you turn up to practice as well so they’re used to having you around.

The Power of the Underdog

According to Car­la Rauseo, being the underdog offers an interesting advantage:

…there are no ex­pec­ta­tions made of an un­der­dog team, ex­cept that they should lose. There­fore, the un­der­dog has noth­ing to lose. Be­cause there are no ex­pec­ta­tions, there is lit­tle pres­sure on the team to win and play­ers can fo­cus more on the process, rather than on the out­come.

If there is an underdog, then there must be a top dog. The top dog faces a different disadvantage, Carla Rauseo calls the “ad­verse top dog psy­chol­o­gy”.

Un­der­es­ti­mat­ing caus­es play­ers to un­con­scious­ly cut cor­ners in their men­tal prepa­ra­tion and be­come lazy in the first part of the game, un­til it is too late.

In Top Dog, Bronson tells us that this is due to the hormone testosterone which prepares us for competition. The underdogs enter the game with a much higher boost in testosterone because they know it’s going to be a difficult match. On the flip side, the top dogs receive a lower boost in testosterone because they expect an easy match, leaving them less prepared for competition.

The Home Advantage

In sports, the home advantage refers to the upper hand that the home team has over the visiting team when playing on their own turf. The home advantage does not only apply to sports but also to other competitive scenarios where the odds of winning favours the individual who controls the territory. In Top Dog, Po Bronson offers the following examples:

  • preschoolers playing a game are more likely to win if they’re playing in their own classroom.
  • college students are more likely to win arguments with their peers if the argument takes place in their own dorm rooms.
  • someone asking his boss for a raise is more likely to be successful if he is in his own office rather than his boss’.

The reason for the home advantage is believed to be linked back to our evolutionary history of having to protect our own territory.

How can we apply this knowledge to ourselves? If the competitive ground is neutral, arriving early and claiming the space as your own can give you the home ground advantage.

The Odds of Winning

We fight harder when the odds of winning are even. A fighting chance and a level playing field can do wonders to spur the competitive spirit. You know how it goes – when the competition is out of your league, it can be pretty demotivating. “What’s the point when they’re going to win anyway?”

One way to overcome this negative effect is to remember the underdog advantage. Since no one expects you to win, you are free to perform with no expectations. Chances are, your competitors will also underestimate you.

The N Effect

More competitors, less competition – the N-effect is the discovery that increasing the number of competitors (N) can decrease competitive motivation. – Psychological Science

Researchers Garcia and Tor found that when students sit for their SATs in a less crowded venue, they scored better. In another experiment, subjects finished a test faster when they were told they were competing against nine other people. When they were told they were competing against 99 other people, their effort dropped.

But wait a minute… the SATs are in competition with every other student in the country. Shouldn’t that work negatively against the student? Interestingly, being placed in a room with fewer other students sitting for the same exam can still have a positive effect on competitive fire. On the flip side, a large hall filled with students only serves to be a reminder of just how many people really taking the SATs.

Garcia and Tor called this the “N-Effect”, where “N” is the number of participants involved in the task. The greater “N” is, the poorer the participant’s outcome. When “N” is small, the competition becomes personal and we try harder. When “N” is large, we aren’t motivated to try as hard.

Who Are You Competing Against?

We know that the competitive fire is greater when “N” is small, but research also shows that “N” should not be zero. Through his studies, Normal Triplett found that when people compete against another person, they can perform significantly better than when they compete against themselves (i.e. against the clock). So much for that idea that “you are your only competition”.

Of course, it should be noted that there are exceptions to this rule. There are some people who wilt in the face of competition and others who are not motivated at all. This could be related to those differences we saw in Warriors vs Worriers.

The Competitive Effect of a Team

To enhance a team’s performance, we need to take note of a few things:

  • Smaller teams work better.
  • Individual roles should be define – everyone in the team should know what they need to do, but they do not have to be equal roles.
  • Conflict within a team can be good – when you are afraid to offend someone else, you don’t speak up even when you know how they could do better.

We need to break our ideals of what a team should look like and accept that what makes a team work well may fly in the face of this construct.

In the idealised notion of a team, everyone is equal and interchangeable, and this equality drives commitment to the team effort. But the science argues that the ideal is, if anything, a distraction. The goal is not to live up to the ideal, but to perform. In real life, teammates are rarely true equals, and they don’t always get along. Having a hierarchy, with its clear divisions of responsibility, is most often the solution to team performance. – Top Dog

Finite Vs Infinite Games

Finite games have a beginning, an end, and the goal of winning. Between games, there is recuperation and restoration.

Infinite games, by definition, can never end, and, since no winner is ever declared, the goal instead is to just stay ahead. With infinite games, there’s no rest – only a waxing and waning of competitive intensity. – Top Dog

I felt that this was one of the most eye opening distinctions that Top Dog makes. It provides part of the explanation why girls do better in school than boys. Here is what they found:

  • When attending elite schools, girls thrive in the competitive hothouse environment, while boys are hurt by it – “…for boys who went to the most elite schools, their math scores suffered. They would have learned more math if they had gone to a slightly easier school.”
  • The best achieving girl will pull up the grades of other girls in her circle; the best achieving boy drives down the grades in his circle.

The bottom line according to Professor C. Kirabo Jackson:

“…if you have a girl, I would put her in the best school as possible and have her around the smartest peers possible. If you have a son, you should put him in the school with the brightest teachers, but you should be wary of putting him in a hypercompetitive environment.”

What has this to do with finite and infinite games? The evidence suggests that girls do better with infinite games, while boys handle finite games better. The school environment with its endless competition for good grades is an infinite game – the kind of environment that girls thrive in, and where boys suffer.


The strongest competitive effect comes from rivalry. When two teams are rivals, they will compete harder than they would against another team. For example, Harvard vs Yale. It is also the strength of this rivalry that drives the best performance.

The Zone of Optimal Functioning

There is a misconception that in order to perform well, we need to “quiet the mind” and be calm. We are taught that anxiety makes things worse. Ironically, this isn’t true – at least, not for everyone. Some people need the internal conflict to perform at their best.

Scientists refer to this as a competitor’s arousal level. In order to produce your best performance, you need to determine your zone of optimal functioning – or rather, the arousal level that allows you to be your best. You can determine this by reflecting on your emotional state when you performed well vs when you performed poorly. For instance, some athletes reported that they produced their best performances when they were feeling angry, vengeful, or resentful.

Playing to Win or Playing Not to Lose

There is a distinction that must be made between “playing to win” vs “playing not to lose”. One style increases our chances of winning and the other our chances of losing.

The hallmark characteristics of playing to win are an intensification of effort and continuous risk taking. The equivalent for playing not to lose is conservatism and trying to avoid costly mistakes.

Ironically, when we are under intense pressure, the more we “play not to lose”, the more mistakes we make. The difference between these two states of mind is that one is “gain-oriented” and the other is “prevention-oriented”. Both orientations result in opposing physiological states, each affecting your performance diversely.

The bottom line is that if you want to increase competitive fire, you need to have a “play to win” mindset.

While “playing to win” may seem like the better state of mind to be in at all times, it is important to note that “playing not to lose” has its own place in our lives. Sometimes you need to “play to win” and sometimes you need to “play not to lose”.

The Male-Female Competitive Dichotomy

In general, when it comes to competition:

  • Men focus on what they’ll win, while women focus on the odds of winning. When the prize is big, men will go for it even if their odds of winning are low. Women generally want better odds before they invest their resources in competition.
  • Men tend to overestimate their chances of winning – hence they tend to enter competitions more readily than women; while women are more realistic about their chances of winning.

There are lots of factors that affect our competitive fire – some we can influence, and others we just need to be aware of. Knowing what these factors are and how they can affect us will make us better competitors in the long run.

Competition is an unavoidable part of life, but it can also be a good thing. It spurs motivation, makes us more creative and drives performance.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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