What is true competitiveness?

Mark at the At Home on the Court blog penned the Is Kobe really competitive? post. In it he presents us with a question. Is an overarching desire to win sufficient to be considered truly competitive? That may sound a bit strange, so let me explain.

It comes down to a player’s commitment to winning. Will they do anything required to win? And by anything required I mean perhaps sacrificing their own personal desires for the greater good. We would probably call these types of people real team players, but do we consider them real competitors?

To quote Mark;

“…I would argue that I have actually met very, very few people who are actually competitive, people who would really do anything to win.  If you are prepared to do anything to win, you will work with others and you won’t take credit. “

We talked about this sort of idea in the MSU Volleyball office one day. It wasn’t so much in terms of competitiveness, but more broadly in the context of pursuit of team goals.

For a team to reach its objectives everyone needs to be on board with them. Everyone also needs to prioritize those objectives. Necessarily, prioritizing the team ahead of the self means you probably have to make sacrifices along the way.

Now, when we talk about sacrifices in this context we often speak of players not getting the playing time they want or having to play a different position or role in the team than they’d prefer. Let me provide you with a different example.

During the 2013-14 season the University of Exeter women I coached were on a mission. They wanted to reach Final 8s, played in Edinburgh that year. Everyone was totally committed and we ended up reaching that objective (and more).

A few weeks after the season the team came together to do a few training sessions ahead of playing in a regional tournament together. After one of them I was walking and talking with the team’s captain. One of the players on the team was someone who commonly expressed strong opinions that could rub people the wrong way at times. The captain told me during that walk that she had a reminder this particular “quirk” that evening. She said it was something she forgot about during the season because the focus was on the team and its objectives.

In other words, the captain had sacrificed her own desires to disagree, argue, or otherwise be made upset or feeling in conflict with this other player. Being a cohesive team was more important to her than any interpersonal issue. In fact, it was so much of a higher priority that the lack of response at potential conflict points, or simply avoiding them, had become unconscious.

Was my captain a special player? To be sure! She was captain for a reason. That’s not to say, though, that other players in the team weren’t making similar types of sacrifices to help maintain team harmony. I’m sure all of them were on some level or another.

The point is that group of players put the team’s mission ahead of any personal agenda of their own. This is what we look for, is it not? When expressed in terms of the objective of winning, then to Mark’s point, this is the ultimate expression of competitiveness.

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John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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