Competitive sport is how many of us are introduced to exercise. Sadly it can also have the effect of discouraging fitness for those who have bad memories of school teams, or were always last in a race. As competition can be a great way to motivate people to exercise, are there ways to reintroduce the concept in adult life without the bad effects?
While fashions in physical education come and go, for many years competitive sport has been the main form of exercise available at school. Teachers are often faced with a large number of children in their class and a limited budget for equipment. The usual school sports of rugby, football, netball and so on need minimal equipment and are simple to teach. Sending children running round athletics tracks or on cross-country routes is also a good way to get them active.
Competition is a fact of life, and it is a valuable lesson for children that there must be winners and losers. Indeed, if there are no winners then it may be argued that it is not worth competing. However, the competitive approach to school sport can result in alienating some who do not enjoy the activities offered. In fact, many teenagers give up physical activity as soon as possible because they were always last to be chosen for the team, or were poor at traditional team sports. This may be for simple reasons such as bad eyesight - a child that cannot see clearly at a distance will very soon hate their cricket, rugby or tennis lessons. This is made even worse by the taunts of classmates, the boredom of standing on the sidelines and the tendency of some teachers to concentrate on those good at sport. All this can add up to an ingrained attitude of ‘I am no good at sport’ or ‘Fitness isn’t for me’.
More recently educators have realised that this may not be the way to encourage healthy exercise habits. There has been a complete backlash against competitive sports in some places, on the grounds that it is not good for children to know about failure. In some areas this has resulted in physical activity time at school being much reduced, and sometimes the activities concerned are simply not strenuous enough to provide physical benefits. There has to be a middle ground and it continues to be a subject for debate.
Competition works best as a fitness motivator if it is seen as ‘achieving and improving personal goals’ rather than simply as ‘beating the other guy’. Looked at in this way, competition can be valuable for improving your health even if you think that you are ‘not the type’.
For those who enjoy it, adding a competitive element to sport is an excellent way to make people push themselves further. When the team is relying on you or the end of the race is in sight, you may find that you do not even notice those burning muscles or heaving lungs until the job is done. Sports which keep participants busy throughout are also great for getting real value out of exercise. Dinghy sailing is a good example of this. Sailors cannot stop in the middle of their race if they bruise or cut themselves – to prevent a capsize they need to be active and aware in the boat at all times. Even if they do capsize, the race doesn’t wait for them and they need to be quick to recover the situation. Sailing is well-known for making even the most laidback person into a very competitive racer, not noticing their exhaustion until they are back on dry land.
What about those who feel that they are ‘not the competitive type?’ Those who were discouraged from sport and competition at school will be relieved to know that sport is usually much more fun once education is left behind. With so much pressure on leisure time and finances, any sports club worth the name should be extremely welcoming to newcomers. There is no need to feel intimidated if you are new to a sport - any decent club will make great efforts to train people and to help them improve. From a purely pragmatic point of view, the effect of beginners joining a club is to move everyone else up the rankings!
There are also mental techniques that can be used to improve performance and build happier attitudes towards competition. There are many books and websites on the subject, both on general psychology and on aspects specific to each sport. One classic piece of further reading is Timothy Gallwey’s ‘The Inner Game’. The details are complex, but part of the theory is that imagining the result that you want is a large part of achieving that result. For instance, golfers are encouraged to visualise exactly where the ball should go, and tennis players to see their opponent being defeated by their shot.
Remember also that you should be competing against yourself – reducing your time to complete a distance, being able to complete more repetitions on your cardio trainer, or even feeling less exhausted after your workout. All of these are measures of improvement.
Like many things in life, good self-esteem will take you a long way to improving your fitness. In a stressful world it is important that the standards that you set yourself for fitness do not add further tension. Use your competitive streak to improve your performance, whether alone or in a team – but then leave that aggression behind at the end of the game. Your sport or fitness regime should always leave you gratified, never disappointed in your performance. Looking after your body is always a victory.
by Kath Webb
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