Why Is It So Hard To Admit That Someone Else Is Faster?
An evening run is nice and peaceful—until you get passed by that person with a point to prove. Here’s why our inner competitor can’t stand it when others are faster.
Out on a recent bike ride, I came up on another cyclist. He wore a commuter backpack and was riding at a good pace. I passed him as we entered the bike path, making sure to warn of my approach and giving a friendly wave as I rode by.
He did not like that.
Moments later, he came roaring up to sit right on my tail for a few minutes before zooming past and cutting me off. The maneuver partially amused me—I’ve raced bikes at an elite level for 12 years, and can hold my own against most riders, so I had nothing to prove to Commuter Man. But it also irked me, and that day, I didn’t let it slide.
I accelerated so I could ride right behind him and watch him break a serious sweat as he unsuccessfully tried to shake me. As we approached an intersection, I slowed down. Intent on beating me by any means necessary, Commuter Man popped onto the road full speed and nearly got hit by an oncoming car.
This is not the first time I've witnessed this bizarrely aggressive behavior when passing another cyclist—more often than not, a guy.
“What’s with this?” I complained to my husband, an avid runner and biker, when I got home.
“Maybe the guy just couldn’t handle being slower,” he said, half-laughing, half-sympathizing. After a pause, he added, “I don’t have a problem admitting a woman is faster than me. But if I’m on a bike or running and there’s someone ahead of me, it’s not a guy or girl thing—I'm chasing them down. I don’t want to be beat by anyone.”
Something to Prove
It kind of got me thinking: Why do so many of us athletes, from weekend warriors to semi-pros, struggle to accept others who are faster, fitter or stronger than us? And what does the extra element of gender bring to the competitive beast within us?
My fellow cyclist Jennifer Barbour has also witnessed this juvenile competitiveness firsthand. Once, she passed a male rider going down a mountain road. His headphones drowned out her repeated warnings that she was passing on his left. “He chased me down the hill, came alongside and grabbed my jersey as we’re going more than 20 mph to tell me I shouldn’t pass him like that,” she says. He seemed noticeably pissed that Barbour was faster. Would he have been that mad if she had been a he? Barbour isn't so sure. “There’s an unspoken belief by some people in sports that women aren't as fast as men," she says. "If I get passed by a man, he’s just better. But if he gets passed by a woman, it means he’s weak.”
That cultural belief plays a role in creating gender tension between athletes, says sports psychology expert and mental performance consultant Greg Chertok, who works with both amateur and professional athletes across many sports. “Consider the sociocultural implications of being taught from an early age—by coaches, teachers, advertisements, and even parents—that ‘boys are better or stronger or faster than girls,’ and then witnessing the opposite take place,” he says. “Many of us, perhaps even below the conscious level of awareness, expect men to outperform women in most physical endeavors, and assume a certain level of weakness to those men who are outperformed by women.”
Part of those assumptions arise from basic biology: In general, many men have a biological makeup and bodily structure that allow them to be faster and stronger in many sports—few dispute that. So the pressure to be faster than a woman is always there, says Chertok. “When we feel as though our self-esteem is on the line, we're going to do anything in our power to protect it, whether that’s making a smart aleck comment or an aggressive pass,” he explains. “The motivation here may be intrinsic—‘I don't want to be beaten by a girl because it'll make me feel pathetic,’ or extrinsic—‘What will others say about me if they find out I lost to her?’”
We All Hate to Lose
From his own experiences, running coach Brent Bailey is aware the male/female dynamic exists, but he also cautions that the competitive drive to win isn’t just a gender issue, as my husband pointed out. Don’t jump to conclusions, Bailey tells his athletes: Maybe that runner didn’t elbow you because you are a woman; maybe he’s just an aggressive a-hole who would have shoved past a male runner in the same manner.
In fact, experts say women can be just as motivated by the fear of losing as men. “We live in a pretty competitive society that has a lot to do with everybody wanting to win and be first,” said elite performance coach and psychologist Michelle Cleere. From a young age, she says, we’re pressured to be at the top in order to feel validated, whether that’s getting a perfect GPA or being the best at a sport.
“I’ve seen this ‘perfectionistic syndrome’ get a lot worse over the last 10 to 15 years,” says Cleere. “Our athletic system supports it—we talk a lot about natural ability and funnel kids into competitive sports when they're still really young. It creates this craving to win, which can be good, but also a lapse in coping skills when we don’t win. I work with some athletes who struggle to get past the idea that, ‘If I’m not the best, then why bother?’”
Keeping Up with the Boys
Changing that mindset isn't easy—and it's not always warranted, either. It’s hard to imagine Annie Thorisdottir saying to her CrossFit competitors, "No please, go ahead, why don't you see if you can podium with one more muscle-up while I sit this one out?" But there's respectful competitiveness, and then there's unprofessional conduct. Former Team USA mountain runner Allie “Mac” McLaughlin said that at the Pikes Peak Ascent, a major trail running race, stories abound of mid-pack men elbowing women out of the way to avoid getting beat. “You’d think at lower levels that people would have less of an ego, but sometimes it’s the opposite,” said McLaughlin.
However, she says most male runners she encounters are friendly and even when she finds herself “racing” a man during a casual run, the interaction is usually encouraging. She thinks that positive attitude is partly because running has a more equal balance between genders, and women are more visible on the world stage. (Read about one woman breaking barriers in the running world through sneaker design.)
“There will always be men who struggle with being beat, and there used to be some embarrassment surrounding a woman being faster,” acknowledges Bailey, who has heard sexist comments about women running in sports bras and spandex, and tales of unsportsmanlike conduct to get ahead of women in a race. As the depth of the women’s running field grows, however, Bailey sees getting beat by a woman as becoming less of an issue. “Anyone who knows anything about this sport knows there are some very fast women out there who can beat the majority of men in a race.”
Maybe we’re all guilty of being too competitive on occasion. We will fight to the end not to be bested by another human being. At the same time, somewhere in the back of our minds are outdated ideas about which gender should be faster and stronger. In the 21st century, women increasingly want to ride and run with the men, and athletes of any gender have the urge to chase down the person ahead. And that’s OK—as long as we remember that more often than not, civility should trump finishing first. After all, sometimes it's just an evening bike ride home.