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The repayments of a rivalry

Michael Phelps swimming
The repayments of a rivalry

If you don’t try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody’s back yard. Jesse Owens, American Olympic gold medallist for track and field (1913–1980)

When you think about the greatest rivalries in any sport, whether it is team or individual sport, the epic battles for dominance fascinate us all. It might be Liverpool and Manchester United in football, Europe and the United States in the Ryder Cup, or Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal in tennis. Whatever your choice of sport, you will find local, national, and international rivalries within it. If there are rivalries, what psychological advantage do they offer? And does it matter how you perform against your rivals? 

Research suggests you might have something for which to thank your rivals because researchers have highlighted that engaging in direct competition with a rival enhances motivation and performance. Specifically, effort is greater when competing against rivals compared with nonrivals. One way in which we get more from our rivalry is through the increased psychological importance of the competition. Pike et al. (2018) presented the long shadow of rivalry in which rivalry motivates performance now and in the future. Lots of examples of individual and team sports bring us head to head with our rivals and many other times when they are competing, but not directly with us. Pike et al. (2018) presented one example from Larry Bird (Boston Celtics), even when he was not competing head to head with his rival, Magic Johnson, Magic’s performance motivated Larry: “The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn’t care about anything else” (Neely, 2012).

Pike et al. (2018) examined the long-term effects of rivalry through archival analyses of postseason performance in multiple high-stakes sports contexts: National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Men’s Basketball and the major U.S. professional sports leagues: National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and National Hockey League (NHL). What these researchers identified was that the postseason performance of a team’s rival in one year predicted the focal team’s (i.e., the rival) postseason performance the following year. The performance boost was especially pronounced when one’s rival won the previous tournament. The researchers suggested the results show how rivalry has a long shadow: A rival team’s success exerts such a powerful motivational force that it drives performance outside of direct competition with one’s rival and even after a significant delay. Also, a rival’s performance against other teams can motivate others in contests against nonrivals.

But there may also be some drawbacks. High performance by a rival inspires high performance in others; however, a rivalry also has the potential to demotivate; when one’s rival performs poorly, it may lower their own aspirations. It makes sense to harness the good from a rivalry and maintain one's distance when that rival is slipping away. 


Pike, B. E., Kilduff, G. J., & Galinsky, A. D. (2018). The long shadow of rivalry: Rivalry motivates performance today and tomorrow. Psychological Science29(5), 804–813.

Neely K. (2012, September 17). Greatest Lakers rivalry: Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. Rant Sports. Retrieved from

If you don’t try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody’s back yard. Jesse Owens, American Olympic gold medallist for track and field (1913–1980). See Owen, James; Times Books. The Times Great Quotations: Famous quotes to inform, motivate and inspire . HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition. 

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