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Understanding Differences between Cooperation and Competition in Sports Psychology

Updated on October 14, 2014
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Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist as well as being a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.

Competition and Cooperation In Sport and Exercise

The complex nature of sport psychology and the unpredictable nature of the human mind mean that participation in both elite and amateur sport can have dramatically different effects on the long-term development and personal growth of an individual.

Cycling- A Combination Of Cooperation And Competition

Many competitive sports feature a degree of both cooperation (teamwork) and competition. Competitive cycling is as much about teamwork as the individual's performance
Many competitive sports feature a degree of both cooperation (teamwork) and competition. Competitive cycling is as much about teamwork as the individual's performance | Source

Sport Can Be A Springboard For Personal Sucesses

In many cases athletes have been able to take the experiences they have learnt from in sport to higher levels in business and life. An excellent case study for students would be Lord Sebastian Coe. Lord Coe was an exceptionally talented middle distance runner who won Gold medals at the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games and was able to use some of his knowledge in the field of politics on his way to becoming an Honorary Peer in 2000 prior to helping spearhead the administration of London 2012’s successful Olympic Games bid.

Lord Sebastian Coe Prepares For London 2012

Lord Sebastian Coe, A gold medal winner at the 1980n and 1984 Olympics as well as a successful politician in charge of London 2012
Lord Sebastian Coe, A gold medal winner at the 1980n and 1984 Olympics as well as a successful politician in charge of London 2012 | Source

Cooperation In Sports And Real Life Complications

Many competitive sportspeople can bring in the argument that the elements required to be successful through cooperation in relationships and business through shared common goals however there are also many instances where self-centred athletes have been unable to adjust to the requirements of normal life and the issues it raises.

Defining And Understanding Competition In Sport Psychology

It's amazing how many situations the term competition can be used. Whether we're competing with ourself towards a better bench press in the gym, pushing our body against the clock or attempting to better a world record competition must have a relatively simple, yet broad-reaching definition and meaning.

Understanding competition- Latin definitions
Understanding competition- Latin definitions

Competition And Cooperation As A Social Process

Many of the psychologists who have studied and developed theories on competition have focused on situations where a degree of competition against other participants has been in place such as those where a direct comparison between individual's performances are made where a person is performing the exact same task (such as a specific move in rhythmic gymnastics) or event (Such as a hammer throw in athletics). Analyses have focused on situations where a reward structure has been in place based on performance and goal related behaviour.

Early studies on competition by Deutsch (1949) showcased that the majority of situations feature social interactions involving aspects of goal related behaviour with implications of cooperation towards achieving those goals.

The Competitive Process

Martens Competitive Process Schematic
Martens Competitive Process Schematic

The Competitive Process According To Martens' Social Evaluation

Sport psychologist Martens (1975) used a social evaluation approach to define competition in four four stages as pictured below.

Initially the performer is able to compare their standard of performance against the objective competitive situation, This must involve a standard for comparison against one or more people which can either be the individual's previous performance levels, an idealized level based on knowledge or theory (such as a 4 minute mile or sub 20 minute 5 km run) or a level set by another individual Through the persons intricate personality disposition they are able to assess the level of their performance as their subjective competitive situation related to their perception and acceptance of their performance level.

The individual's subsequent response will be based on their personal ability and their subsequent motivation will define the consequences of their actions where their personal attitude will then allow them to assess the objective competitive situation and the competitive process continues it's cycle.

Different Types Of Competitive Situations

Whilst achievement motivation is not necessarily a precursor to actual sporting performance the degree of competitiveness showcased is one of the clear differences that can be shown between athletic and non-athletic individuals.

As competitiveness forms a vital measure within the study of sports psychology it is important to establish it's forms. Gill and Deeter's (1988) Sport Orientation Questionnaire focuses on the answer to 25 key psychometric questions to analyse the origins of an individual's competitive nature.

Competitive people have a thirst for competitive scenarios and actively tend to seek out these situations to be involved with. They would typically talk along the lines of "I really look forward to competing" or say they're seeking out a challenge.

Win orientation focuses on the personal predisposition towards winning in competitive situations. This focus is of paramount importance, even when compared to improvements on personal performance standards. Win orientated people hate to lose.

Goal Orientated people are effectively competing against themselves rather than emphasising the need to beat others' performances. Personal goals are paramount. Importance is placed on performing to the best of the individual's abilities.

What's your specific competitiveness in your chosen sport?

Taking into acount your chosen sport/ activity. Are you

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Case Study On The Competitive Process- Cycling Time Trials

The competitive process is in place throughout the racing and training cycle of a time trial cyclist
The competitive process is in place throughout the racing and training cycle of a time trial cyclist | Source

A Case Study On The Competitive Process

Using Marten's model of the competitive process to assess the performance of a time trial cyclist.

Object Competitive Situation. The cyclist completes a 10 mile individual time trial event in a time of 22:05. If the individual compares this the the standard of the event winner who completed the course in a time of 20:34 they would judge themselves to be uncompetitive in comparison to a personal goal orientation of winning the event. However if their performance on the same course the previous week was 22:10 they would likely infer an improved performance if analysing based on previous goal orientation.

Subjective Competitive Situation. In analysing their performance the individual now needs to assess a situation of success or failure in pursuit of their goals through their perception. acceptance of the performance and subsequent appraisal of the competitive situation. A typical subjective competitive situation analysis for a time trial cycling event would bring into account the riding conditions encountered as they can have a dramatic effect on the rider performance. Just a simple change in wind direction can have a dramatic effect when comparing performances on the same course however when a comparison is also factored to involve the performance of similarly performing other riders a more suitable assessment of performance can often be made possible.

The subsequent response for a time trial cyclist will now phase towards their requirements in terms of training and competition to consider their goals. If their goal is to win at all costs and the rider was a significant distance behind the winner of the event it may become a consideration for the individual in a worst case scenario not to compete on the next available occasion or specifically look out for a lower level of competition in which they can have a greater opportunity for success. Alternately the athlete may make adjustments to training and equipment choices based on what they have subsequently learned as a consequence of their performance.


Deutsch, M., (1949). An evaluative study on the effects of cooperation and competition on group process. Human Relations. 2, 199-231.

Gill, D. L., & Deeter, T. E., (1988) Development of the Sport Orientation Questionnaire. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 59, 191-202.

Martens, R., (1975) The paradigmatic crisis in American sport personology. Sportwissenschaft, 5. 9-24.

Did this article help your studies?

We're always looking for your feedback here on Hubpages. If you have any suggestions to improve this sports psychology piece or would like to put forward another theory that we may have missed off please feel free to let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading

Liam Hallam (CyclingFitness on Hubpages)


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      Stevie R 

      6 years ago

      Thank you, this has helped simplify my psychology degree work


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