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Just Duo It

When Paired With Tough Competitors, Elite and Weekend Athletes Alike Push Themselves Harders and Strive for Their Full Potential

September 21, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the last moments of the Nagano Winter Olympics, Tara Lipinski had an edge that even she may have been unaware of.

When the diminutive athlete took center ice as the last performer in women's figure skating, the 15-year-old needed a near-perfect program to knock Michelle Kwan out of first place. She did just that.

Certainly, as with other Olympic skaters, Lipinski's skill and confidence, honed through countless hours of training, travel and competition, helped propel her into the final round of competition. But what may well have supplied the critical wisp of wind beneath her wings as she triple jumped her way to a gold medal was her intense and extremely well-publicized rivalry with Kwan.

Just as a good story needs a good villain, a good athlete often needs a good opponent to reach his or her potential. In a sense, great competitors like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and most recently Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa owe a portion of their amazing success to their rival.

"People do better with strong competition," said Robert Schleser, director of the Center for Sports and Performance Psychology in Chicago. "That's a universal. There's no question about that."

Whether you're an elite athlete in the NBA or a weekend warrior on the tennis courts, sports psychologists say the lesson is to welcome--rather than dread--a tough competitor. A hard fight, win or lose, is the surest way to improve overall skills and raise the level of athletic performance.

And even if your primary goal is fitness and not necessarily to enhance competitiveness, experts still say finding a partner roughly equal to your own ability can boost a flagging commitment to working out. The presence of a partner with similar talents and goals charges a person mentally and encourages them to work harder than they would otherwise, studies show.

"No matter what level athlete you are, you need to stay excited and focused about what you're doing," said Jim Loehr, who has worked with such top athletes as Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Eric Lindross. "Emotions are the key. They run the show."

Athletes who shy away from strong challengers and others, such as swimmers and distance runners, who view the clock as their chief nemesis, are at a competitive disadvantage against an opponent pitted against a formidable flesh-and-blood foe, say psychologists.

"You can't let up a second when you're against someone good," said Doris Heritage, who ran the 800 meters and 1,500 meters in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, respectively. "It keeps your adrenaline going. It keeps you sharp."

"A great competition is what holds people's attention," added Heritage, who also served as the women's distance coach for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and today coaches track at Seattle Pacific University. "I don't think the crowds or the athletes themselves are as interested in seeing a great time as they are a great race."

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Insights into this well-documented rival response begin with the observation that just having another person present alters physiological responses, says Schleser, a professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. A person's blood pressure and heart rate will rise as soon as another person simply enters their area, Schleser says.

"Just think if you're walking down a street and then someone gets behind you, you walk faster," he adds. "This was first demonstrated with cockroaches. They do the same thing."

On the other end of the motivational spectrum is a well-known rival, who, in human athletes anyway, produces a powerful incentive to excel. Some athletes, though equal in physical skills to a fierce opponent, will nevertheless wither under the stress. Others in a similar circumstance, however, thrive.

The boys of this summer provide a textbook example of a rivalry leading to the highest of achievements in their sport. In an unprecedented chase, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs helped lift each other over Roger Maris' 37-year-old home run record of 61.

Most sports psychologists argue there'd be no record-breaking year for either slugger without the other. It's true that McGwire, the more established home run hitter of the two, led the tally most of the season, but always with Sosa, and sometimes Seattle Mariners' slugger Ken Griffey Jr. close on his heels.

Said Cardinals coach Tony La Russa of the slug-fest: "I think it's a real healthy competition. It's much better for Player A if Player B and Player C are having great years."

Even in 1961, when Maris bested Babe Ruth's home run record by one round-tripper, he had Hall of Famer and teammate Mickey Mantle shadowing him. Mantle finished the season with 54 homers that year.

Psychologists say players locked in a McGwire-Sosa style duel benefit in two important ways from the heated competition. The first and most obvious is one player pushes the other, often with results that can exceed the expectations of both players involved.

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