Comparing Yourself to Others: How to Use Jealousy as a Tool for Success

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Photo Courtesy: Andra Reed

By Taylor Covington, Swimming World College Intern.

The act of comparison is a natural human tendency, with jealousy being one of the most intense, instinctive emotions that make up the human experience. Sports in particular tend to force us into our most primitive states, where the nuances of the complicated outside world exist only beyond the walls of the natatorium. Inside, the strongest and the fastest prevail. Comparison is the essence of competition. We long to be lonely at the top, to be the bar and the standard, to be the best – and we never are.

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Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

In the world of athletics, we find that being the best is largely transient and even subjective. In an ever-evolving universe, we find an evolving nature of sport where no one reigns alone and forever – and that’s the best part. Being an athlete means enjoying the chase, where the sweet taste of victory lasts just long enough before the emergence of the next goal, where we spend the majority of our time chasing something better: that small, fantastic moment occurring just before we set the next standard. It’s the nature of competition.

However, with competition, there’s always the tendency to desire what someone else has, to do what someone else has already done, and for that person to be us. This can be the most formative and magical feeling in sports when treated and handled correctly or the most detrimental when perverted. There’s a delicate balance between harnessing and using our natural tools as competitors and letting them become our own (and others’) worst enemies.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

A certain stigma exists around competition and comparing oneself to others that fails to emphasize the ways in which we can use the greatness of other people to become better versions of ourselves. It is beneath the dignity of the sport and athlete to view comparison as a cheesy, cut-throat aspect of competition in which athletes claw their ways to the top under any circumstances. Comparison is about respect and admiration. It’s allowing yourself to be inspired by the successes of other people and viewing them as another form of proof that we, as athletes and human beings, have unreal capabilities.

Athletes go wrong when they lack the confidence to see other people’s greatness as a sort of mirror for their own performances. It’s easy feel inadequate and discouraged in the shadow of someone else’s fast times; yet, swimmers fail to capitalize on their innate tools for self-improvement when they succumb to this mindset. Instead, swimmers should work on manifesting the sort of self-belief in which they are able to place themselves in similar categories as those who are better than them.

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Photo Courtesy: Jeff Commings

The athletes who struggle with comparison are those who concede in thinking they are incapable and fear disappointment. Instead of writing elite athletes off as unattainable superhumans, try finding elements of yourself within them – be it in their technique, ambitions, attitudes, or approach. Recognize that ever-important flicker of jealousy as your mind’s natural motivator, and then, most importantly, let it go.

Repackage this envy and comparison as a burning desire for self-improvement: a method for using the beautiful, interconnected swim community in making yourself a better athlete. Approach the block each race with the hope that your competitor is about to perform at his peak, and hold yourself to those standards. You should work to be the athlete you hope to become, and it’s good (healthy even) to have role models. View competing, watching, and practicing with better swimmers as a sort of closeness and insight into your next steps as an athlete.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Most importantly, use other athletes as a valuable tool in your growth, but keep this aspect of your training in perspective. At the end of the day, you can’t control someone else’s break-out time, but you can control the way you interpret it in relation to your own performance.

In comparing ourselves to others, we must ultimately focus on what we control, and that is in identifying our own goals and capabilities in the beauty and success of our fellow athletes. It’s about respecting other swimmers enough to emulate them and respecting ourselves enough to use this as positive fuel.

Comparison is negative when we view it as a method for pinpointing our shortcomings rather than an inspiration for our own successes. Allow yourself to be amazed, and acknowledge that the accomplishment is separate from the person. Use that source of motivation as a small piece in your mosaic of methods for self-improvement, driving at the true bar of comparison, which is in the person you were yesterday.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

5 comments

  1. avatar
    Kevin Lancaster

    Amazing insight! The battle is within, not with others. Competition in any format, should be in a healthy form, in any circumstance.

  2. avatar

    interesting no mention of the Lilly King vs. Taylor Covington showdown

  3. avatar
    Victoria Brady

    What a beautiful message. Going to share this with some of my younger swimmers. Important to keep life in perspective! Way to go, Taylor! Keep on writing. My niece is interested in pursuing sports reporting and I have directed her towards your pieces. I hope you continue writing!

  4. avatar
    Anita Rising

    Love this article. Really puts the struggles of being an athlete and competing in a competitive environment. I believe this struggle applies not only to the Olympian but also to the 5 year old T ball player. Parents can use this article to guide their children to be the best they can be.

  5. avatar

    Wow! What can this girl not do! What a great piece from a Gaffney SC native!! Great article Taylor!