Women, Men, and Competition

On Competition…

Lisa Welch

So having recently been called upon by my “hmmmm….let’s sit down and discuss some random topic and see where it leads” buddy Jim Kornell to be the voice of a research piece for the SBAA website on women and competition, I give you the following meandering thoughts.

Our conversation struck a chord in me and got me thinking…as most of my conversations with Jim do, btw. This particular conversation came about after much ado about a ridiculous and flagrant article posted on the Slowtwitch.com website by a very (shall we say) “opinionated” woman writer. Her callout was to wussy, whiny chicks and how women are socialized to be whiners and not competitive and strong and then she went into how guys have become these wussified “chicks” whining about this and that. Basically the article was a glorification of traditionally male characteristics of strength, competition, autonomy and resilience in the face of adversity. This same article became a catalyst for an intriguing email stream between several local SB Tri Club women triathletes (mind you, this was a direct result of the article being tossed in front of said email group of said triathletes – much in the same way one would throw a piece of raw meat into a pack of wild dogs, step back and then watch the ensuing mayhem). Anyway, one of my favorite parts of the article was how in playing boys’ soccer, the author, after repeatedly being tackled and picked on for her whining and crying finally learned “to get tackled, run after the ball with her mouth shut and take out the “prick” who tackled her.” Good lesson and one taken to heart whether it be in sport, relationship, business or otherwise.

I digress from the topic at hand though. JK’s comment to me was how top women’s age-graded performances are statistically lower in comparison to top men’s (we’re talking in SBAA results here…not a blanket statement all round). So why is it? One would think that the top women runners would come in at the same age-graded performance as the men…not so according to JK. The women tend towards 6-8 % lower than top men. – age-graded being the base-line equalizer and best indication of an equal playing field results. I personally feel better about my performances when I see my age graded result, but I am speaking to his observation from the female perspective regarding levels of competitiveness.

The ensuing conversation was then about women vs. men and competition. How are they viewed and acted upon psychologically – is there a fundamental difference? Of course there are the extremes – women who are “aggressively” competitive (and I say this only because very competitive women tend to get “labeled” as aggressive) and then men who could care less (seemingly?) about where they place – labeled as “wuss” and “un-guy-like”…it is my observation that these guys seem to feel they must verbalize why it is they finished where they did and provide every excuse in the book for why it’s ok for them to finish in the back of the pack. Not that it’s not ok…it’s perfectly ok….they’re out there for their own satisfaction, to enjoy a beautiful day, interact with the athletic community, or whatever, but somehow there has to be an excuse for their lack of competitiveness. On the other hand women have the luxury of pulling out the “everyone can do this”, “just do your best”, “your best is good enough”, “we can do it together” card – (hell, there are even races that cater to this segment, our local SB Tri one of them) – in TOTAL opposition to pure competitive “I’m going to kick your ass” mentality. And that’s ok for women. I don’t see too many men involved in these groups….. Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking this philosophy, quite the contrary. These groups empower women and provide them a venue, a path into involvement in sport when they might otherwise be intimidated and shy away from the experience. I know so many friends who have transformed themselves from joining sport (self included). So, please…kudos to this empowerment.

But here’s a bigger question for the genre of women athletes that are motivated by, passionate about, fixated on competition: what is it that drives you competitively and why? What is it that you get off on and how far are you willing to push yourself? How much pain can you put yourself through to push yourself to the limit? Is it so different from what men experience? I think it is. Men tend to do this easier – they tend to be wired for competition (JK’s evolutionary psychology inserted here). I want to understand the wiring behind an over-the-top competitive woman. And how do you define your competition? There are women that compete only against women (me being one of them) and women that compete against men (of which I am not one – although when I do beat my male counterparts the victory is more one of a self validation of my athletic abilities rather than “ha! I beat that guy.” What about the woman who goes through the finish shoot and turns around and points at the guy she just passed in a taunting fashion….what is going through her head?

Look, I think I’m the type of athlete willing to push the limits of my own abilities……on some days, but not on others. I know what it takes to reach my potential…to improve..and it’s hard. It hurts. It’s not pleasant, but the rewards it reaps are, for at least me and other competitive women (and that’s a question?), unmeasureable. Are you the same? If not, why? Ultimately, why do you compete? And I say “compete” to be inclusive of everyone who shows up on race day, no matter what your ability or finish time – if you show up…in my mind you are a competitor…either against yourself, other women, other men, or your demons.

Disclaimer: I realize I am by no means a top runner in town. There are plenty of gals out there who can kick my ass on a regular basis…on any given day….and they do…ouch! But I live by that sense of competition. It drives me. Classic example: SB Triathlon…. There are always a multitude of LA Tri Club members who try to pimp our hood every year for the tri and my philosophy is “No way, chica. No way are you going to beat me on my home turf.” And I feel it, I live it, it incenses me to think of some LA tart beating me on my home turf. In the end she still might beat me, but I’m gonna throw an emotional hissy fit over it trying to not let her. Now, the “him’s”? I could care less. They’re not my competition.

Here’s another angle: In my mind I “compete” against those women who I know are within the same capabilities as myself. I’m pragmatic (realistic?) about who I can and should be competing against.

And what about age and generational aspects? I grew up when being competitive at sport was not something ingrained as important for girls. I developed this later in life – later, like my 30’s. Prior to that it wasn’t important. Or maybe it’s that I competed in other arenas of life…hmmm…food for my own thought. What about the younger women competing today? How were you socialized around the idea of athletic competitiveness?

And another question for you…do you race “against” or “with” individuals? A matter of semantics maybe, but definitely one of competition vs. camaraderie. I have been in both situations and use the terminology situationally. If I really really think I have a chance at beating someone I race “against” them. If I am along side that same person and my competition meter is for whatever reason, medium (I don’t feel like pushing it physically or I don’t feel like pushing the issue of competition into the relationship), I race “with” them….meaning we use each other to drive ourselves to our limits and to push each other, or maybe more accurately, to pull the best out of each other.

So if anyone, particularly women are reading this…I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on competition, men vs. women, women vs. women, what goes through your mind? Let it fly! I’d like to compile a follow up piece to this article with “voices of SB (specifically) women athletes.”

Lisa Welch

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