While watching the USA Track and Field Championships from my home late last week, I was struck by the difference in how two athletes interacted with their fellow competitors following their respective wins in the events in which they were entered. Those athletes were Galen Rupp in the 10000m and Bernard Lagat in the 5000m.

Reveling in Victory

In the 10000m on Thursday night, Galen Rupp waited until late in the race to take the lead for the first time, sprint away from the competition, and then coast in the last 100m before sharply pumping his right fist upon breaking the finishing tape in first place. He stood and reveled in his achievement briefly, while a string of other competitors began to stagger in behind him. Then, without so much as a nod to the competition, he proceeded to strut through his solo victory lap and interact with some fans.

Exemplary Sportsmanship

Fast forward to Friday night in the 5000m; Bernard Lagat waited until late in the race to take the lead for the first time and sprint away from the competition in the final 100m. He finished, turned around, and immediately began congratulating many of his fellow competitors, patting them on the back and shaking hands. He then began interacting with fans and signing autographs.

Competitor or Enemy?

As these two examples illustrate, athletes often have very different relationships with their competition. Some athletes and coaches prefer to build an enemy image of their competitors to drive their training and performance. They choose to forget the many similarities they have with their fellow competitors and instead see each competition as a “good” versus “evil” encounter, thus treating their sport as a war to be won. The problem with this approach is that when the competition has ended, athletes often forget that there was no war to begin with, only sport.

Performance and Sportsmanship

Do all athletes possess the ability to maximize their performances while still displaying high levels of sportsmanship to their fellow competitors, or are enemy images necessary for certain types of athletes to get the most out of their performances? What do you think?

Author: Jeff Sather