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How to Deal With a Rival

December 2, 2003 12:38 PM

by Jim Brown, Ph.D.

Something bad is happening. Sporting events that should be great rivalries have turned into hate rivalries. You may blame it on parents who don't instill values in their children, coaches without morals, uninformed fans, or athletes who are selfish and undisciplined. But the problem is real and you can see it in the sports violence on television almost daily.

“Many athletes,” says sports psychologist Ralph Vernacchia, Ph.D., Western Washington University, “have the attitude that they have to be aggressive in their sports behavior rather than being assertive. From a psychological perspective, aggressiveness implies that there is an intent to harm others. Assertiveness, on the other hand, means to play hard, to be intense, and to pursue athletic excellence with honor.” Honor seems to be a foreign concept to an increasing number of athletes.

“Athletes have to keep competition in perspective,” continues Vernacchia, who coached college track and field for 22 years. “In spite of what some coaches say, sport is not war. It is not life or death. It is a game in which the feelings of others should be respected. Jesse Owens, the Olympic champion who competed as hard as any athlete in history, said that sportsmanship itself is the ultimate victory.”

This should rule out trash-talking, which has become a habit for many modern athletes. The ideal, according to Vernacchia, is to enjoy your success while showing some humility in winning. “No matter how much you prepare and how hard you play, you won't always win. There are two sides of the scoreboard and you will be on the losing side sooner or later. A win means simply that you or your team was better in this game on this day — nothing more.”

Gaining an Advantage
“There are several ways to make a rivalry work for you,” explains Diedre Connelly, Ph.D., sports psychology consultant at the College of William and Mary. “It is one way to measure the progress of your play. If you become competitive with a long-standing rival who has dominated play in the past, that is a sign of progress. Rivalries can also be a ‘pick-me-up’ during a long, hard season. They could provide the spark that you need to push yourself to better performance even though your body and mind are tired. But most coaches like rivalries simply because they can use them as a way to motivate their players. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the approach is not overdone.”

The key, according to Connelly, is to get athletes to respond to rivalries in positive rather than negative ways. Some athletes allow rivalries to become distractions. They get caught up in the emotion of the event and everything that precedes it, rather than focusing on preparation and performance. The rivalry can also become a negative experience if an athlete builds up unreasonably hostile feelings toward an opponent.

The irony of the situation in which an athlete develops a “hate-the-rival” mentality, thinks Connelly, is that this approach is seldom productive. The killer mentality not only devalues the whole sport, it can hinder athletic performance. In contact sports, that kind of misdirected energy can result in penalties or missed assignments. In individual sports like golf and tennis, poor course management and shot selection are frequent outcomes of playing the opponent rather than playing the game. You don't have to like your opponent, but there is no dishonor in appreciating the other person's talent and the opportunity that a rival gives you to play your best.

“From a sports psychology standpoint, we want the athlete to appreciate a rivalry rather than allowing it to become a negative,” explains Connelly. “If you worry about a game or a person to the point of performing poorly, you have to find a better way to react. This may take time because deep-rooted emotions take years to develop.”

Mental Homework
“I give athletes homework to help them reframe negative thoughts,” states Connelly. “For example, the goal for one day will be to redirect attention every time they catch themselves thinking too much about a rival. The idea is to let go of certain thoughts and replace them with positive pictures of their own performance.”

“The goal is self-reliance. Negative thoughts about rivals don't completely go away. But when they reappear, the person needs the awareness to recognize what is happening and the skills to correct the problem.”

“Competitors have to remember that they need each other to perform at the highest level,” Vernacchia reminds us. “If a rivalry is diminished by the attitudes or behavior of one player or team, both sides lose.”

© HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at




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