Competition in Sports

Competition  is  often  described  as  a  contest,  or  a process  of  contesting,  between  two  or  more  parties (organisms, individuals, or groups) for a scarce resource  or  good.  The  scarcity  can  result  from nature  or  history,  such  as  competition  for  limited food, or it can be created artificially, such as the good of winning a game. As the term is most often  used,  competition  is  the  opposite  of  cooperation. Since competition is a central dynamic in most if not all sports, competition is of keen interest to sport scientists. In this entry, various forms of  competition  are  described,  the  social  science research  on  competition  is  reviewed,  and  theory and research on competitiveness is summarized.

What Is Competition?

Competition comes in many forms and is relevant to  many  fields  of  study.  Economic,  political,  biological,  evolutionary,  and  sport  competition,  for example,  each  have  unique  characteristics,  along with  some  commonalities.  Competition  occurs between  and  among  nonhuman  organisms,  individuals,   teams,   organizations,   cultures,   and nations, to name only some of the most obvious. Competition  can  be  direct  or  indirect,  subtle  or intense,  formal  or  informal.  It  can  be  zero  sum, resulting in winners and losers, or allow for many variations of outcome distributions.

To define competition, most social psychologists have  focused  on  the  goal  structure  of  situations. Morton  Deutsch,  for  example,  defined  competition in terms of “negative social interdependence.” A situation is competitive if the progress or success of one party interferes with the progress or likelihood of success of other parties.

Rainer  Martens  proposed  a  definition  of  competition from a sport psychology perspective. For Martens, competition is a form of social evaluation; it entails comparison of individual or team performances against one another or against an objective standard  of  excellence.  In  Martens’s  view,  people compete  because  humans  have  an  innate  motive to evaluate their ability. A competitive situation is one that allows for the evaluation process through providing a rule structure that (a) defines the goal toward which action is directed and (b) defines the allowable means to try to achieve the goal.

Competition: The Social Science Research

Psychologists  have  studied  the  effects  of  competition  for  more  than  a  hundred  years.  In  the  late 1890s, in what is often called the first sport psychology study, Norman Triplett found that cyclists performed  faster  when  they  were  racing  against other cyclists than when they were racing against the clock. Despite this promising initial start, subsequent  research  has  demonstrated  that  for  most types of tasks in most situations, competition leads to poorer performance. The exceptions are simple tasks  or  rudimentary  skills,  the  performance  of which can be facilitated through competition.

In  his  extensive  if  somewhat  polemical  review of the literature in No Contest: The Case Against Competition,  Alfie  Kohn  concluded  that  competition  is  associated  with  a  range  of  negative outcomes.  As  noted  above,  in  most  situations  it hinders  optimal  performance.  Competition,  both interpersonal and intergroup, has also been associated with increased hostility, aggression, and prejudice. It tends to interfere with developing positive and stable self-esteem; it creates stress and anxiety, along with their negative health consequences; and it  promotes  conformity  and  reliance  on  external evaluation.

Many  researchers,  such  as  David  and  Roger Johnson,  acknowledge  the  extensive  literature demonstrating  these  negative  consequences,  but still  maintain  that  competition  can  be  useful. Writers in this tradition seek to distinguish healthy from  unhealthy,  beneficial  from  destructive,  and productive  from  harmful  forms  of  competition. Unfortunately,  the  distinctions  are  often  unclear and are based more on differences of degree than of kind.

A  different  approach  has  been  advanced  by David  Shields  and  Brenda  Bredemeier,  who  offer a   qualitative   distinction   between   competition and  the  forms  of  contesting  that  lead  to  negative outcomes. They define competition as striving for excellence in a contest situation. According to this view, competition entails a combination of a contest  structure  with  a  personal  orientation  toward seeking  excellence  through  the  mutual  challenge that opponents provide to each other. They introduce  a  new  term,  decompetition,  to  describe  a situation  in  which  a  contest  is  metaphorically understood as a battle for superiority or extrinsic reward. They suggest that it is the different motivations  and  goals  associated  with  decompetition that account for the negative findings prevalent in the literature.

What Is Competitiveness?

When people compete, they strive to obtain a limited goal and to compare favorably to others similarly  striving.  In  sports,  the  contest-specific  goal, of  course,  is  to  win.  The  amount  of  preparation, focus,  determination,  and  energy  that  a  person puts into striving to win is often referred to as their competitiveness. Competitive people have a strong desire to achieve and succeed, thereby demonstrating  their  competency  to  themselves  and  others. There  are  two  main  instruments  that  have  been developed to measure competitiveness in sport.

Robin  Vealey  used  achievement-goal  theory  to help  her  define  and  operationalize  competitiveness.  Correspondingly,  competitiveness  can  take two  different  forms,  depending  on  what  goal  the athlete  is  trying  to  achieve.  Athletes  can  be  outcome oriented (winning) or performance oriented (performing  masterfully)  or  both.  When  Vealey developed  the  Competitive  Orientation  Inventory (COI), she placed the two orientations in opposition.  The  format  of  the  instrument  consists  of  a 16-cell matrix in which four levels of performance (very good, above average, below average, and very poor) are intersected with four outcomes (an easy win, a close win, a close loss, and a big loss). For each of the resultant 16 cells, the athlete indicates their level of satisfaction. Those athletes who indicate  high  satisfaction  when  they  win,  irrespective of how well they played, score high on outcome oriented  competitiveness;  in  contrast,  those  who are most satisfied with playing well score high on performance-oriented competitiveness.

Another widely used assessment of competitiveness,  called  the  Sport  Orientation  Questionnaire (SOQ), was developed by Diane Gill and Thomas Deeter.  The  measure  assesses  three  orientations: competitiveness,  goal  orientation  (a  focus  on personal  standards),  and  a  win  orientation.  The concept  of  competitiveness  is  defined  as  a  desire to  enter  and  strive  for  success  in  sport  competition. For example, respondents are asked to indicate  their  extent  of  agreement  with  “I  thrive  on competition,”  and  “The  best  test  of  my  ability  is competing against others.”

Researchers   have   investigated   competitiveness  both  as  a  dependent  and  as  an  independent variable.  For  example,  researchers  have  generally found  male  athletes  to  be  more  competitive  than female athletes, elite athletes to be more competitive  than  recreational  athletes,  and  U.S.  athletes to be more competitive than those from more collectivist cultures. In turn, competitiveness seems to predict  sport  involvement,  poor  sportsmanship, higher alcohol consumption, and sexually aggressive attitudes.


  1. Gill, D. L., & Deeter, T. E. (1988). Development of the Sport Orientation Questionnaire. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 59, 191–202.
  2. Kohn, A. (1992). No contest: The case against competition (Rev. ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  3. Martens, R. (1976). Competition: In need of a theory. In D. M. Landers (Ed.), Social problems in athletics (pp. 9–17). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  4. Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B. (2011). Contest, competition, and metaphor. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 38, 27–38.
  5. Vealey, R. S. (1986). Conceptualization of sport-confidence and competitive orientation: Preliminary investigation and instrument development. Journal of Sport Psychology, 8, 221–246.

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