Competitiveness Is Not What You Think It Is

One trait that has always been synonymous with sports is competitiveness. We view nearly all highly-accomplished athletes as being extremely competitive, but can we quantify what this actually means?

The book The Captain Class by Sam Walker contains some very compelling information about competitiveness and leadership. Walker conducted an in-depth study of great teams and players, and concluded that the most successful sports “dynasties” had a team captain who propelled his or her team to the great heights they achieved.

Walker also developed a list of seven traits that he asserts all of these elite team captains have. Those traits are:

  • Extreme persistence and focus.
  • Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.
  • A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.
  • A low-key, practical and democratic communication style.
  • Motivating others with passionate, non-verbal displays.
  • Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.
  • Ironclad emotional control.

Some of these traits don’t align with people’s commonly-held beliefs about competitiveness and leadership. Perhaps competitiveness isn’t what we think it is?

A great example of this alternate way to view competitiveness is Walker’s take on San Antonio Spurs great Tim Duncan. The famously laid-back and quiet Duncan is listed among Walker’s elite team captains.

Walker discusses how Duncan showed his competitiveness and leadership through subtle, non-verbal means. Duncan might hug a teammate when they need encouragement, or stare down a teammate when they need a proverbial kick in the rear.

Tim Duncan’s competitive nature was not shown in ways that are viewed as typical, but there is no doubt about his level of competitiveness, leadership and accomplishment.

Two of the NFL’s up-and-coming young stars, quarterbacks Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert are also competitors in the mold of Tim Duncan.

Both of these players (per Profile’s proprietary data) have very easy-going personalities, and neither is highly competitive. However, Allen and Herbert are finding success in the NFL, despite not having traits that many NFL teams consider “mandatory” for a star quarterback.

Another case of competitiveness being shown in non-standard ways is that of former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

One thing that set Manning apart from his competitors was his excruciating attention to detail. Manning would often drive his coaches crazy with his insistence that they go over film or discuss certain situations or plays at length. Manning would go as far as cornering a coach on the team plane so he had little choice but to “talk shop” with Manning.

For anyone in the media who showed up to a Colts game several hours before kickoff, one look toward the field would find Peyton Manning and his receivers practicing before the game. Manning would go through the entire route tree with his receivers, working to perfect each route and the timing required, even on a gameday while most other players were relaxing, napping or not even at the stadium.

Peyton Manning was a competitive athlete, but the way he expressed that trait rarely involved the more stereotypical behaviors associated with extreme competitors.

College basketball has also seen plenty of successful players who expressed their competitiveness in ways that differed from conventional wisdom. Purdue’s Robbie Hummel and Ohio State’s Aaron Craft were both seen as competitors and leaders, but their most prominent trait was their analytical thinking, attention to detail and precision.

Another former Ohio State star, D’Angelo Russell, has a very similar personality and behavioral profile to those of Hummel and Craft, but Russell’s competitiveness and dominance are even lower than theirs. Russell has gone on to become an All-Star in the NBA.

The accepted convention in sports is that you always look for players who have extremely competitive, dominant personalities. But, does that actually work?

We’ve all heard the phrase “too many generals, not enough soldiers.” When building a team, you can’t have all super-competitive, dominant people because a group like that won’t work well together.

For example, if the Chicago Bulls teams of the ’90s had five players on the floor who’s personality traits were all as hyper-competitive and dominant as Michael Jordan’s, those teams would not have been as successful — you can’t have all “generals” and no “soldiers.”

This concept is widely understood, accepted and utilized for team-building in other industries. Why do sports teams normally not follow this line of thinking?

We at Profile, LLC have spent significant time performing our own studies on this topic, and we too have found that competitiveness is not what most think it is.

During our study of successful NFL quarterbacks who entered the league during the past six years (arguably the position in sports most associated with ultra-competitive, dominant personalties), we discovered some strong patterns that led us away from the standard assumptions of what it takes to be a successful QB at the pro level.

We found that a large percentage of highly successful quarterbacks were more balanced in their personality and behavioral traits. Some of the stronger traits in these athletes included their yearning for knowledge, as well as their desire to work with their teammates and achieve their goals through cooperation.

An excellent example of a player who has these qualities, but was viewed with a great deal of skepticism coming into the NFL is Pro Bowl QB Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals.

We love Murray’s profile and expected him to be a very good NFL quarterback, despite the dissenting opinions that were prevalent during the 2019 draft as Murray was entering the league.

We also discovered that a moderate level of competitiveness and dominance was very common among elite QBs. In fact, extreme competitiveness was a trait much more often found in quarterbacks who we deemed had “failed” based on their draft position and subsequent underwhelming performance.

Former Notre Dame standout QB DeShone Kizer is an example of a player who is extremely competitive, but didn’t live up to expectations in the NFL. Kizer was chosen in the second round of the draft in 2017, but went 0–15 as a starter and washed out of the league after two seasons.

Those long-held stereotypes of the franchise quarterback needing to be a dominant type of leader and a super-competitive individual simply don’t pan out when the hard data is examined.

People in our society are different now than they were 30, 40 or 50 years ago, and that certainly includes athletes. What might have been true in bygone eras is not necessarily true now. Times change. You can either change with them, or remain stuck in old ways of thinking and fall behind your competitors.

Profile offers a scientifically-proven system to evaluate the personality and behavioral traits of athletes, coaches and administrators. We understand what to look for in individuals, as well as how to build teams for optimum success.

Every team wants to find a way to get a leg up on the competition, and accurate evaluation of players’ personality and behavior is a key component to this. Profile, LLC provides the tools to make great personnel decisions, and great personnel decisions ultimately lead to winning at a very high level.