What Competitive Really Means (I Think)

Lately, I've had many conversations/debates/arguments about what it means to be competitive. It seems that just about every skater says they are competitive and their team is competitive. So, I am intensely confused when skaters who claim to be competitive also rally for equal playing time during games and express disinterest (in the least) or disdain/disapproval (at worst) in the way elite athletes train. I've heard some of these statements:

  • The all-star team is practicing at a level of intensity that is unsafe.
  • The all-star team will win at all costs, including hurting/excluding others.
  • The morals of the all-star team do not align with mine.
  • The all-star skaters are bullying people.

My first (internal) reaction was pure whaaaaaa? How can you say you are competitive or your team is competitive and not want to train and compete like the best skaters and teams in the world? How? How? How?

I talked to people and researched and talked some more and read some stuff, and I came to the conclusion that there are different levels of competitiveness. When we talk about our competitiveness or our team's competitiveness we use one word - competitive - that encompasses a broad and very different value system for everyone. There's not one level of competitiveness that is better than another. There is not one value system better than another. They are just different, but people get really passionate about their values, so conversations can be difficult, especially if we don't realize we are really talking about our values. 

I made this scale to wrap my head around the levels of competitiveness. I included the most extreme levels, even though they rarely appear in derby. On the lower end of the competitive scale is the skater who enjoys competing, but doesn't care about the outcome (probably wants to win, because it feels good). This kind of competitive skater values the joy of training and playing the game. They enjoy learning and refining their skills and emphasize having fun as a priority. They prefer to play on a team in which everyone has equal playing time. They might view elite training/competing as hyper-competitive and elite skaters as bullies. (I'm working on the bully thing for another blog.)

A little further on the competitive scale is the skater who loves to compete and wants to win. They are willing to put in significant training time to develop individual skills and team skills. They care about the outcome of their games. This kind of competitive person values intense training and competing over having fun. When it's go-time, they are focused and serious. They might view a less competitive skater as lazy and as someone who doesn't care enough about the sport.

Take it a little further on competitive scale and you'll find the skater who is very competitive and values winning over fun. Their priority is to train to win, so they train - physically and mentally - like it's their job. They cross-train, analyze and emulate the best skaters and teams, and strive to be the very best teammate they can be. They understand their role is to help the team win, even if that means sitting on the bench when they'd rather be playing. This kind of skater probably has a hard time understanding how it's possible for another skater to not care about winning. When talking about fun, they probably say that winning is fun. 

At the most intense on the competitive scale is Michael Jordan competitive. This guy played three major sports, won two Olympic gold medals and numerous MVP awards, and was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame, among a shit-ton of other accomplishments, but he also punched a teammate in the face during a scrimmage, allegedly ruined some professional athletes' careers by trash talking and had a huge gambling problem. Athletes, fans, and media either idolize him or hate him. A skater who competes at this level probably doesn't have a lot of friends, but finds value in their accomplishments. 

In describing these types of competitive skaters, I'm generalizing and describing just the most common types of people I've played with and coached. Not everyone fits into the limited descriptions I provide, but everyone does have a limit of what they are willing to do in order to compete or win. Some people are only willing to sacrifice their time and money, while others will sacrifice their time, money, relationships, and self. I created this graph as a basic visual for derby teams. (I know there are no professional teams yet, but if there were... !!)

[[ Again, my graph is very basic and in no way scientific. I'm just trying to make pictures so we can look at pictures! ]]

Things get hairy when you apply individual levels of competitiveness to a league.  We all joined roller derby for different reasons. A lot of women join because they want to be involved with something cool, want to get some exercise, or want to broaden their social circle. Some women find they are not cut out for the sport. (That's right. Derby is NOT for everyone.) Some women, within the process of learning the sport, develop a love for the sport and discover they enjoy playing derby and learning new things. Some women discover their inner-athlete and seek to be the best at derby and compete at elite levels (read: I want my team to win the Hydra! I want my team to compete at the Olympic level.) Some women have a completely different experience or some combination of all of these that I've described. Point is that neither response is better than the other. Just different. 

Leagues that exist in small towns/cities do not have a large pool of talent to recruit from, so in order to maintain healthy numbers they need to offer a team for the women whose main goal is to compete and a team for the women whose main goal is to have fun. The A/B team structure seems to offer the best of both worlds. There are no set defining characteristics or values for A/B teams in roller derby. They are based on the general A/B structure, or Varsity / Jr. Varsity structure, of other sports. 

In search of more information about the differences between A and B teams, I consulted with the internets. Here's what I found:

B Team / JV Team

The B team, or Junior Varsity Team, is a developmental team. Players hone their skills and a love of the game. There is a focus on emotional development and encouragement. Games are meant to help players gain skill and experience. The team serves as a "feeder" team, as it prepares skaters to move to the A team or varsity team. 

A Team / Varsity Team

An A team, or varsity team, represents an organization (high school, college, university), and are part of an organized athletic conference (teams that play regularly in season). They typically receive financial support from the organization. Players are required to try  out for the team and commit a significant amount of time to intense training. They are selected and rostered based on performance, and coaches play the best players in order to win games. Scores matter in relation to ranking and tournament seeding. 

When applied to the sport of roller derby, the B Team provides a league with two purposes: 1. it grooms skaters to raise them to A-team level and 2. it serves as a team for players who can't or don't want to train/compete at a higher level. The A team is comprised of the most talented skaters, and in a WFTDA-sanctioned league, the A team represents their league in rankings among other all-star teams and can participate in divisional and national tournaments.

Let's look at competitiveness on the team level. As far as what I've experienced with my league and the leagues I coach, the general trend for A and B teams is like this:

The B team trains in order to develop skills, a love of the game, and self-confidence. There is more focus on fun than winning and scoring does not affect the team's placement or goals. Some B teams allow for equal playing time. 

The A team trains at an intense level and plays to win because their game scores matter for national ranking. Performance standards must be met to be rostered and played in a game. The best skaters play the most. 

Within a league with the A/B team structure, there are two teams that train and compete at different levels of competitiveness. Looking at the individual levels of competitiveness, you can see that a skater who values having fun over winning will be more suited to the B team, whereas the skater who values intense training and winning will be more suited to the A team. 

Problems arise within a league when 

  • a B team skater wants to train/compete at the A-team level and believes she has earned or deserves the opportunity, but hasn't been offered it
  • an A team skater expects B team skaters to train/compete at their level, without recognizing the growth that needs to occur in order to do so 
  • a skater possesses the skills needed to compete at the A team level, but that skater's ethos doesn't match up with a team's ethos
  • a skater's ethos doesn't match up with a team's ethos and that skater attempts change the team 

I think these problems can be avoided by asking skaters to look inward to determine their individual level of competitiveness, educating them about the ethos of the teams within the league, and encouraging them to aspire to earn a spot on that team. Additionally, leagues should provide clear, transparent information about how a skater carves out her derby career within the league. Skaters should be able to access information about the requirements for each team and feedback about their progress. This involves a lot of work, but skaters are more satisfied with their experience when they understand their individual level of competitiveness and what they are willing to sacrifice in relation to the possibilities within their league and in relation to requirements and ethos of the team they aspire to join.

I can't wait to hear from you! Please tell me what you think about competitiveness and how that impacts individuals and teams and leagues. Tell me!