When I arrived as the new coach of a squash team, I entered unknowingly into a long-standing rivalry between my new team and that from another local prep school. The bitterness between the two teams ran long and deep, with charges of thievery at games, boyfriend stealing, slurs on social media, and the standard suspicion that somehow the other side was gaining some competitive advantage through unfair means. I was, quite frankly, shocked at the level of nastiness to which this rivalry had descended, particularly in the genteel sport of girls' prep school squash, and dedicated my first season to cleaning up the tenor of the rivalry and getting my team focused on the squash and not the banter. For it seemed obvious to me that not only was this grudge antithetical to the entire mission of the school, we were the ones whose squash was suffering the most and who always came up on the losing end of our close encounters. I often wondered if my team had decided that they would never beat this team and so had decided to take the consolation prize of winning the smear campaign. The recent and very public kerfuffle between Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods has brought my old experience back to me quite vividly, and so I thought I'd share some things I tried to impress to my team back then about what a fantastic opportunity a rival represents and how to transform the negative feelings a rival elicits into performance gains.
Violation of the first commandment. Becoming embroiled in the negative aspects of a rival violates the first commandment of good sport cognition, namely, to focus on the things you can control, not the things you can't. Though we need to be mindful of our opponent's moves and gamesmanship, a rivalry starts hurting our performance when our focus moves exclusively on that behavior rather than the appropriate performance response, which will usually just be to commit to focusing on the task at hand.
Elevate the rival. Two important distortions occur when a rivalry has gone south. The first is that a rival is in our way and the second is that the rival is somehow less than human. We see this latter in the terrible name calling we engage in toward the rival and in attributing evil intent to the rival. Both of these thoughts elicit hostility, a motivator sometimes, but more often a distraction. Instead, we have to shift the thinking and recognize that a rival offers a great opportunity to strengthen weaknesses in our own games and train harder, focus more clearly and play better. In essence, the rival is calling us to a higher place, knowing all the while that if we engage in the negative thoughts and behavior that a rivalry offers, we are actually descending to a lower place. Use the rival to motivate improvement, not to feed the impulses of judgment and rancor, which, if we are going to achieve our highest potential, need less attention rather than more.
Take the higher ground. Always take the high ground in these instances. Always resort to better sportsmanship when you are being lured into gamesmanship. Compliment rather than criticize ("nice shot," rather than "lucky bounce!"). Don't take away your opponent's humanity by imparting evil intent to them. Doing so is not only better for the game, it's better for your game. You will find yourself less caught up in your opponent's shenanigans and more focused on your own play. And, you will not have a moral hangover for slights and injuries that you were lured into, behaviors that linger into subsequent points and games and drain your focus away from the moment at hand.To return to the earlier example of Sergio and Tiger. I think it was fairly clear to everyone on Saturday at the Players Championship that Sergio's blaming Tiger for his own bad shot on the 38th hole of the tournament was an example of bad sport cognition which bit him very bitterly on the 71st. I have written in these bytes before about Sergio's bad thinking, but his behavior at the Players and his subsequent offhand and racist comments really reached a new level, and in it we should recognize the self-destructive power of the kind of negative thinking involved when a rivalry goes awry. Think of him what you may, but Tiger Woods is clearly calling the golfing world to a higher level (of golf) and if Sergio could only transform his negative thoughts about Tiger into motivating ones, he might be the one raising the jug on Sunday. Believe me, no one would be more motivated to play better golf by such a sight than Tiger.