Should You Compare Yourself to Others?

So many of us are striving to be better, stronger, and faster as cyclists. You finish higher or lower than a rival. You were stronger on the climbs today than a teammate. Someone wins, everyone else doesn't.

And then there's the old saying, "If there are two cyclists, it's a race." So you're on a training ride, and you say to yourself, "this time, I'll beat my buddy to the city limit sign." Or you're riding a century, and you're trying to drop someone in the last 10 miles. So let's face it: comparison is at the heart of sport and competition.

Or is it?

You're striving to be better, stronger, and faster...than whom? How much of your passion for cycling is fueled by the striving, and how much by your desire for a specific outcome?

Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. If you're intrinsically motivated, you love what you do because you love the process. It comes from within. If you're extrinsically (ie. externally) motivated, you'll be fueled by outcomes and outcome goals: results, or others' regard for you, or both. You'll tend to compare your performance—if not yourself—with others'. And you'll tend to be affected more by things you can't fully control, such as competitors' performance, mechanicals, and failure. Not good.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying external motivation is always a bad thing. The right amount of "I want to win" or "I want to be as skilled as he is" can be rocket fuel. But research—according to Weinberg and Gould's Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology—shows that a mastery orientation, where your focus is on improving relative to past performances, tends to lead to optimal performance. "I want to climb Mt. Diablo in under an hour this year", "I want to complete my first metric century this summer," "I want to improve my Maximum Steady State power by 15 watts over the next 12 months" -- those are coming from within. When you're intrinsically motivated, you're comparing yourself to...yourself.

But you're not out of the woods yet. What if your standards for yourself are too high? In the words of Brandt, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie The Big Lebowski: This is our concern, dude. Your constant grasping for a "bar" that's always out of reach may leave your self-confidence in tatters.

And finally, speaking of self-confidence, it can be an illusion if it's fueled by comparisons with others. That hit home for me this week in New York City, where I was visiting for the first time since 9/11. My hotel room overlooked the World Trade Center site, which is just at the beginning of its rebuilding project. Every few minutes I'd hear an air horn sound, and then a minute later I'd see and hear a blast on the floor of the construction site. I was told that after each blast, the rubble is carted away, and the hole is filled in with something strong (cement?), so as to create a sufficiently strong foundation over time -- a kind of "shoring up." For us human beings, shoring ourselves up by comparing ourselves favorably to others can create a "house of cards" kind of self-confidence, which can be vulnerable to a strong wind. Lasting self-confidence comes from within.

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