[intro- a few years back I heard Frank Dick (OBE) speak at a Sports Leadership Conference) about the difference between competitors and opponents. Listening to the trash talk and behaviour of some athletes at different events I thought it would be a good lesson to share, paraphrased into my own words but inspired from his talk]
Athletes need to know the difference between competitors and opponents. And more importantly, knowing that any individual can be one or the other and when to consider yourself and those around you as such.
A competitor is some in a competition the same time as you. There is a degree of mutual respect and friendship brought about by the event. If they take a long hard pull to drop the pack, you take your turn and don’t drop them in return. You’ll encourage them as they will you. You hold your line and give them room on turns. If they do the lion’s share of the work, you don’t out sprint them at the finish.
An opponent is someone you see to be defeated. You are looking for the ideal opportunities to do this as it sends a message that “I am the strongest- Do Not mess, with me. I can put you down anytime I want”. It is about sovereign authority and establishing yourself in the sport hierarchy. Not only do you have to defeat them, you have to do so decisively. If you see them struggling, you push harder and exploit any weaknesses you know or see. If they take a hard pull and drop the pack, you drop them when they fatigue or try to rest from their effort. You don’t encourage them, unless you’re using them for your purpose. You’ll force them wide on turns and do not give way on turns. If they are dumb enough to do all the work and save nothing for the finish, you will out sprint them. They take a wrong turn, you push harder. They miss a hydration station or drop a water bottle, you enjoy your next drink even more.
As Frank put it- when you have your foot on an opponents neck, you don’t back off on the pressure to give them a chance. You push down harder.
When are people competitors and when are they opponents? When it counts. A tiny nothing event doesn’t necessitate making opponents. An Olympic final does- as a triathlete you may choose to have competitors for the swim and bike, and then opponents on the run.
Cultivate your fellow competitors to help you in defeating your opponents. When the time is right for you, change your mindset and prepare to deal with your opponents in a subtle yet respectful manner. If you treat someone as an opponent too much or at the wrong times, they will cease to see you as a competitor and only an opponent.
A very important consideration in this is that the collective memory of a group, whether parents, spectators, collection of competitors, etc. can also label you as an opponent and this is not a good thing.
While you may be able to handle one or two opponents at a time, maybe even three, the social policing in a group may have the entire field viewing you as an opponent. This is a huge threat to your ability to compete to win as there is no way you can overcome so many individuals working together against you.
As an aside, if you can battle the entire field at an event, you were already outclassing your competition and you should be seeking out more suitable competitions and competitors, go pick on someone your own size!
Beforeand after an event is not the time to recognize opponents. The sports ‘arena’ defines where opponents are found, nothing else.
Always respect that Olympic and World champions know when, how and who to make competitors into opponents.