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Relentless Competitors: Nature or Nurture?

Today’s post was inspired by a Facebook post from my friend and fellow pitching coach James Clark. James is the owner and chief instructor of United Pitching Academy in Centerville, Indiana and is very familiar with what it takes to build champions.

His original question was:

“Being competitive and having an absolute desire to win. Is this a personality trait or can it be coached?”

He and I chatted about it a bit ourselves and I will share some of his thoughts shortly. But you have to admit it’s a great question – especially since it generated a lot of comments on both sides of the issue. First, though, my thoughts.

In my experience it’s kind of a mix of both. Some people come by their competitiveness and relentless desire to win naturally.

On the positive side, these are the types of players who will spend extra hours taking ground balls or spinning pitches from close distance or getting in extra batting practice or hitting the weight room. During games they keep a positive attitude and do their best to lift their teammates, even when their team is down a bunch of runs, because they just can’t fathom losing without doing everything they can to win.

Even if that effort is at times misguided.

(On the negative side, these are also the players who will play through injuries when they should be taking time to heal themselves, and sometimes can be harsh on teammates they don’t think are giving the same level of effort.)

You don’t really have to do anything to push these players to give their all. They know no other way to approach the game.

It’s like the story about football legend Lou Holtz being asked how he became such a great motivator of players. “I find the players who are self-motivated and cut everyone else,” he said.

Those players stand out, however, precisely because they are so rare. For the rest, having that type of indomitable spirit and high level of competitiveness is something that has to be nurtured.

Especially in female athletes, because even today, in 2023, society doesn’t really value those traits in females as much as they do in males. Just look at the controversy over the NCAA women’s D1 basketball championship where a simple taunting gesture – one that would probably hardly raise an eyebrow on the men’s side – became a national scandal.

James and I both agree that competitiveness is hard-baked into our DNA at some level as part of our survival mechanism. As he put it:

“The natural selection idea stems from prehistoric/caveman times. You had to compete with nature to survive. Failure to do this was certain death.

“Needing to hunt and kill your next meal fostered the sense of survival. In modern times we tend to use sports to feed this primal instinct.. If it’s not fostered within a culture where leadership is promoting this “succeed or fail to survive mentality it eventually goes away.”

I agree with that thought. At one point in our early existence it was kill or be killed. Our primitive reptile brains still retain that somewhere.

But I also believe once humans began organizing themselves into societies they were able to distribute workloads based on ability. Those who were inclined to hunt would hunt, while those who were inclined to farm would farm.

A view of an early coach.

The farmers might still compete for who could grow the most food or the largest pumpkins, and could defend themselves if they had to. But they were largely relieved of the “kill or be killed out of necessity” aspect of life and so perhaps didn’t have that same urgency.

Which brings us to today with sports. For some, it’s definitely a way of life, which means winning and losing is uber-important to them.

Winning brings satisfaction while losing brings literal pain and suffering. (You would think winning would bring delight but I think for most uber-competitors the joy is short-lived because there’s always another hill to conquer.)

I hate losing more than I even wanna win.
I actually know that feeling.

For others, winning is less life-and-death. Sure, everyone wants to win, but for this group it’s not so life-and-death. And there’s always a segment of the population that’s just content to play whether they win or lose.

Which means coaches will need to bring that long-buried competitive streak out in those players. They will need to inspire those players to pursue winning at a deeper level than they may have on their own.

A big part of that is establishing a culture where winning is an important goal. Players have to have a big desire to win before they will go out of their way to compete better.

Finding a “lead goat” or two who can help drive the others is important. Take the natural competitors and make their enthusiasm infectious.

The belief that “we can do this” has taken many teams from the cellar to the penthouse and inspired players to do things they never thought they could (or would) do.

In my opinion, and I think James would agree, it’s one of the greatest gifts a coach can give his or her players. Because learning how to compete and succeed in sports is a skill that can be easily transferred to other aspects in a person’s life. Because everything in life is a competition at some level, so the sooner you learn how to compete, and build a burning desire to win, the better prepared you will be for life’s larger challenges.

In many cases, when you have a natural relentless competitor the best things the coach can do is guide them in how to direct that energy, give them the tools to pursue their passion, and then stay out of their way.

For everyone else, that’s where the real coaching comes in. It’s not just about X’s and O’s, or mechanics or strategies. It’s about lighting that spark that may be buried deep inside of them to help them exceed their current expectations in order to become the players they’re meant to be.

Make a commitment to be that spark.

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