Po Bronson: Use Competitive Fire to Be a Better Human

May 12, 2014

Credit Bill Slattery Jr/flickr creative commons

From Faith Middleton: You've possibly heard the latest data on “practice” being the key to accomplishment, right down to the number of times you must practice to do something well. The authors of Top Dog, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, say there’s more to the science of winning and losing, and the key is “competitive fire.” The book is a look at how to cultivate competitive fire to go with practice. 

Here are some of my favorite lessons from Top Dog:

  1. There are two kinds of competitiveness—healthy (adaptive) and unhealthy (maladaptive). The healthy competitor at work or at play “is marked by constant striving for excellence, but not desperate concerns over rank. It’s adaptive competitiveness that leads to the great, heroic performances that inspire us all. (The American relay swimmer on the U.S. Olympic Team who enabled Michael Phelps to win his record-shattering eight Gold Medals.)”
  2. Success in competition requires taking risks that are normally held back by fear. The first act requiring courage is choosing to enter the competition. (The authors say that men tend to do this more than women because they are over-confident about their abilities, whether they are skilled or not.)
  3. In a search for the right word to describe competitiveness in its most healthy form, the authors studied Ancient Greece, the first culture that truly celebrated competition. There were Olympic Games for men and women. The gymnasium was a center of Greek life, a place to compete athletically and about ideas. “The virtue of competing all the time was that it honed a person's mind and body. The ultimate goal was to achieve something the Greeks called aretas, (pronounced like gravitas). To describe someone as having aretas was to say that he had competitive fire… competition was the outlet for all other virtues—courage, loyalty, trustworthiness.” A person with aretas has a cunning intelligence, brave and steadfast in character. “The Ancient Greeks did not fear that competition bred immoral behavior. They believed that competition ‘taught’ moral behavior. Aretas meant that competing had shaped you into a better person: competition challenged you to become the best you could be.”
  4. “Religious scholar James Carse makes a distinction between finite and infinite games. Finite games have a beginning and an ending, with the goal of winning. between games there is recuperation and restoration. Infinite games never end, and since no winner is ever declared, the goal instead is to get ahead. With infinite games, there is no end to the comparisons, only a waxing and waning of competitive intensity. It turns out women handle infinite competitions better than men, often because they find ways to recuperate while still competing. Men, unable to shield their egos, do best in shorter competitions of a discrete length.”
  5. “When people say that the difference between an elite competitor and an intermediate competitor is all mental, that's accurate: becoming a better competitor is about controlling your physiological state, which in turn alters your underlying physiology. Most simply put, if you can control your fear, then you can control your biology, too.”
  6. “It's a myth that remaining calm is the answer for everyone. Only some people need to remain calm; others conquer anxiety by going to the other end of the spectrum—by being highly aroused, animated, and even angry… there are two kinds of people: those who need to avoid stress to do well, and those who actually need stress to perform their best. Being told to chill out, relax, and think positively is fundamentally counterproductive for some people.”

As I read this book, I began thinking about coach Geno Auriemma. His players have always seemed well-trained by media coaches when they answer interview questions, spinning toward the positive. But ask a graduating senior about the overall experience of playing for no-nonsense Auriemma, and you see her at her most real. She often remarks on how Auriemma’s high standards have made a positive contribution to all areas of her life. It’s as if he helps a player realize that through his style of basketball coaching, she discovered what it’s like to be at your very best, physically and mentally. Life lesson learned.

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  • Ashley Merryman is coauthor of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.


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