Brain Babble

Unraveling neuroscience research and FAQs—without the jargon

Head-to-Head Competition: It Really Is Mind Over Matter

Believing that you are in a race can make you more competitive.

I miss rowing for my college crew team.

Conversely, my poor teammates probably don't miss the uncharacteristic grunts and wheezes coming from my position in 4 Seat during the final 500 meters of a 2K sprint, a result of every last cell in my body pumping out its last reserves of energy—coursing with lactic acid and pleading for mercy—as I could see our rival teams inching closer out of the corner of my eye.

Research published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests that the ability of an athlete to pull through victoriously in such head-to-head competition really is an issue of "mind over matter."

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Participants in this study completed a 2,000-meter cycling course five times. They were instructed to aim for their quickest possible times, watching their progress on a virtual racecourse. During their final trial, participants were told that they would be racing a competing cyclist behind a partition and could view their competitor's avatar on their screen. In fact, the participants were racing their own previous best time.

Out of the 14 cyclists, 12 performed significantly faster—1.7% faster—than their previous best time when they believed they were facing an opponent. Despite their exhaustion after this intense series of exercises, lead researcher Jo Corbett found that "only in the last race, when they were unknowingly competing against themselves, they were able to race even harder."

Corbett reasons that such head-to-head competition specifically provides enough motivation to instruct our brain to delve into this anaerobic energy reserve.

He explains, “Whenever you do exercise you’re likely to think ‘how much am I willing to hurt myself?’ and there’s usually a point which holds you back because you don’t want to do yourself irreparable damage. But when racing someone head-to-head the athlete’s brain can manipulate this signal and keep on going.”

Irreparable damage, eh? As a proud—albeit battered—alum of St. Mary's Crew, I can more than vouch for that.

Corbett J, Barwood MJ, Ouzounoglou A, Thelwell R, & Dicks M (2011). Influence of Competition on Performance and Pacing During Cycling Exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise PMID: 21900846

Jordan Gaines Lewis is a science writer and Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine.
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