Frame of Mind: Do you Experience Competition as a Threat or a Challenge?

Our eight-year-old daughter attended her first competitive soccer tryout over the weekend. We’ve been talking recently about how to prepare for this new adventure, and I’ve been extremely careful about the words I’ve been using to describe the purpose of tryouts, how to optimize her chances of being chosen, and how she might feel during the sessions.  There’s a fine line between helping a kid get jazzed and motivated on the one hand, and creating excessive anxiety on the other. 

Both of our daughters have auditioned for numerous plays, and the drill has been the same: frame the pending tryout as an opportunity to show their stuff, put their hard work to the test, and enjoy a chance to perform.  They are told that success comes with the process of preparation and doing your best.  The outcome is beyond your control, but what you put into the pursuit is your domain. 

As thousands of CrossFit athletes around the world await the announcement of the first CrossFit Open workout this week, many of them will, consciously or not, frame the pending competition in a predominately positive or negative way.  That is, they will experience the pre-competition emotional state as either threatening, or challenging.  I’m drawing here from some fancy research and theoretical thinking laid out in A Theory of Challenge and Threat States in Athletes (2009).  The basic idea is that athletes’ perceptions of an upcoming competition either set up a performance-enhancing set of psycho-physiological responses (including positive emotional states and effective event approach) or a performance-inhibiting set of responses.  In simple terms: if you feel threatened by a competition, you are likely to set into action an emotional, cognitive, and physiological cascade that will hinder your performance; while if you experience a pending competition as a challenge—a chance to thrive and show your stuff—you are likely to set into motion all sorts of awesomeness.

It seems to me that this threat-versus-challenge model can be applied to our lives outside of competitive sports, as well.  How, for example, do you experience an upcoming power-point presentation to the executives in your company?  How do you frame a job interview in your mind?  What do you experience when you think about your upcoming high-school reunion (we all know those are really competitions in disguise)?  Do you feel threatened? Do you worry that you won’t do well enough, that you’ll fall short, that you won’t be in control of the situation and will therefore be at the whim of antagonistic forces?  Or do you feel challenged, excited, motivated to do your best and revel in the opportunity to shine?

I realize that life isn’t so simple.  We are complicated creatures with multifaceted psychologies.  Dichotomous categories like threat or challenge rarely hold up entirely.  Most often, we will experience a mixture of both, and our performance will thus be influenced by dual perceptions.  Likewise, our performance is not a simple result of our states of mind; there is the hard and fast truth that we possess varying degrees of talent, previous experiences, resources, and competencies and those will impact our outcomes.  But our frame of mind around upcoming events absolutely matters, and it behooves us to ponder whether we generally consider our endeavors as threatening or challenging and why.

It’s time to do some cognitive reshuffling and start framing competitive events and forums as a chance to show your stuff, test out your hard work, and shine among peers and rivals.  It’s time to take the positive self-talk you’ve started since my last article on self-criticism, and apply it to your global view of future events or presentations.  Label that pressure you feel as an opportunity to get your juices flowing and to allow adrenaline and other hormones to do their thing.  Resist the default translation that may have previously forced you into a threatened state of mind, and therefore, a threatened state of performance.  Take some big deep breaths, imagine the possibilities, and go kick some butt, embracing the challenge and the chance to do better than you would without it.  Now go be awesome.  


Jones, M., Meijen, C., McCarthy, PJ, and Sheffield, D. A Theory of Challenge and Threat States in Athletes.  International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 2009: 2(2): 161-180.


  1. It’s an interesting question–for me, my understanding is influenced by the research that suggests that we perform our dominant response while being observed–in other words, when we’re on stage, we do what comes naturally and easily. So if we’re prepared and ready, it’s good to be under pressure and observed. If we’re feeling shaky, it’s actually better to do it in privacy. I think competition often works in a similar manner to amplify our natural tendencies-if we’re naturally skilled, the competition can bring out our best, if we’re struggling with the desired behavior, the competition can bring out the worst. Obviously, I’m oversimplifying, but it’s how I explain that I sometimes find that competition makes me better, sometimes makes me worse.

    • Good points, Hildy! Keep them coming! ~Allison (sorry my blog is set up under our TJ’s Gym site, so the icon appears to be from the gym , but it’s me!)

  2. People reveal a big part of themselves by the way they deal with challenge. Those parts of themselves in revelation include the physical, mental,,emotional and spiritual.

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