Rainer Martens was a college football player, a semipro baseball player and a coach, but he is best known for his research at the University of Illinois concerning children and competitive play. Because of the quality of his work and its influence on others, Martens is sometimes called the father of modern sports psychology.
Martens believes that competitive sports evolve out of what he calls "the process of social evaluation," which can be roughly described as follows: If several three-or four-year-olds are playing with balls, they may enjoy one another's company, but each one's attention is centered on how far, straight or high he—not the others—can throw. After good efforts, the children may shout, "I won." They are not using this expression as their elders do; they are simply saying that they have done something excellent and satisfying.
In a couple of years, usually by age five or six, Martens has observed, this changes. Children start paying attention to the prowess of others, making efforts to equal or surpass the throws of their playmates. In due course they learn how to measure the comparative results more precisely, which is to say, they learn to keep score. All the rest—pickup games, Little League, letter sweaters—follows.
Martens thinks this process—their competing and comparing themselves with others—is part of what helps children find out what they can and should be. If not exactly innate, the urge to do this, Martens believes, is almost universal. There are many such standards of comparison—appearance, speech, possessions, knowledge, etc.—but sport is a popular one because it lends itself to objective scorekeeping. Among hundreds of children he has observed. Martens has found none who are not somewhat interested in this kind of evaluation.
Although Martens's work is widely respected, I also sought out about 20 other people who seemed to be authorities on competition either because of their academic work or because of their experiences as successful athletes or coaches. Though their backgrounds, their language and the examples they used were widely divergent, their opinions were strikingly consistent.
Take the question of "the competitive personality." Everyone agreed that while there is probably no such thing as a totally noncompetitive personality, there are, in sports, individuals who are exceptionally eager to enter contests, who usually perform very well and who seem to thrive psychically in them. Yet most of the academics and athletes disagreed with the popular notion that such competitive personalities are equally intent upon succeeding—winning—in all situations, no matter what the contest.
As a swimmer in the 1960s, Don Schollander won five Olympic gold medals and a reputation as one of the fiercest competitors in his sport. But he thinks that because he became a world-class swimmer, he grew much less competitive in other endeavors, particularly football, his first sporting love. On balance, Schollander believes he is now no more than moderately competitive, and he has a theory to explain that. He thinks competitive urges are finite, not insatiable, and that you can get filled up with contests, as he did, and thereafter have less appetite for them.
Another popular notion holds that very competitive people have combative, domineering personalities by which those people can be identified in any circumstances. Again the academics and athletes thought otherwise. John Wooden, an All-America basketball player at Purdue and, given his nine consecutive NCAA titles (and 10 overall) at UCLA, the most successful college basketball coach ever, says, "Some of the people I recall as fine competitors were, when not playing, very exuberant and perhaps aggressive. But as many others were rather quiet and withdrawn."
Schollander goes a step further and says that among the world-class swimmers he knew, the most intense competitors tended to be unassertive people once they were out of the pool. He thinks that this may not have been coincidental—that they may have been especially motivated to excel as swimmers and athletes because they were awkward and timid in ordinary social situations.
Len Zaichkowsky, a sports psychologist at Boston University, says elite athletes seem to share certain common personality characteristics—"hostility, aggressiveness, vigor, determination, energy" among others. But he quickly points out that these traits usually become apparent after the athletes have succeeded. Though there is a lot of interest among coaches and recruiters in predicting success on the playing field, Zaichkowsky knows of no personality test that can reliably preselect good competitors. Which is simply to say that, for now at least, competitive personalities are generally recognized only after the score is posted.