Why you must help your rivals.

Yves de Saá Guerra, Ph.D.


It may seem like a paradox. Well, if they are your rivals, you don’t have to help them. If you win, it is better, right? Actually, both in sports and in life, things are not so simple.

In nature there are many examples of opposition or conflict which drive an improvement in an individual or in a group of individuals. The struggle for resources or survival have marked significant changes in the human body and other species, and in the way they relate. Darwin’s ideas and the study of evolution have focused on competition as a driving force for evolutionary change.

In the scientific field, this is object of study, since the struggle for resources generates behaviors which are repeated in different fields such as biology, ecology, economics, and of course, in sports. Normally, the first thing that anyone can think is that we don’t have to help our competitors, since we will achieve nothing. And, in fact, if we eliminate competitors, will be better, right? This is a tactic widely used by large corporations. Although, as we will see, it is not successful.

Secondly, we can think about sharing a small part, since, if we have more than necessary, we can share without representing a loss. And as long as we maintain a dominant position, others can fight for leftovers.

We can also think about not sharing our ideas, in order to avoid that someone take ownership of them and comes up with something better to win. And of course, never share them with our competitors, as they would find a way to triumph over us.

Actually, this doesn’t make much sense. Scientists publish their ideas and the methods they have used to achieve their findings. And this causes that other scientists base their research on these ideas, and achieve more advanced ones, and so on; and reciprocally, which is the most important.

In sports, for example, players, when they cooperate, compete better as a team, as a whole (Bar-Yam, 2003). The performance of a team can be postulated as winning as many games as possible. It is the result of the synchronous interaction of certain states of optimization of the systems that compose it on a time scale (improves their way of functioning and relating in a certain time), and at the same time keeps a reciprocal relationship with the emerging environment and fundamental: the competition.

As we can see, two notable behaviors can take place. Cooperation and opposition. Both are fundamental for the improvement of organisms, individuals, populations, and through the simultaneous manifestation of both phenomena, the system evolves. A significant change, in which new properties or behaviors arise permanently.

In sport, in fact, cooperation or opposition of the players is what gives rise to the different scales on which the sport is built: athletes, team/club, championship/league, sports discipline, sports reality of a region or country. The coexistence of these two behaviors is what allows sport, and all its elements, to evolve.

Let’s use team sports as an example to explain this idea. Players compete against each other for a place in the roster. This makes them improve their skills individually. But at the same time, cooperation between several players is what allows a team to compete against other teams (of players who cooperate with each other) (Bar-Yam, 2001). In this way two different behaviors manifest on the same level. The same element may show different properties, depending on the type of interaction. When players cooperate, it is a synergistic relationship. When players compete, it is an antagonistic relationship. Competition take place only when there is cooperation, and improvement only occurs when there is an opposition.

Thanks to these two behaviors, another degree of organization or scale is created. Teams compete between them and improve as team. But at the same time, they collaborate allowing sport to exist and compete against other sports for resources (fans, sponsors, media contracts, etc.). And so on. In this way, the different realities of the sport are created. Where they influence each other.

In the case of individual sports, the exact same thing happens. Players compete to improve their records. And for achieving this, it is necessary to improve cooperation between the body systems. For this, we design training loads, as an opposition, with the intention of producing performance improvements in order to overcome the barriers of brands or registrations.



 As we can see, at different levels thanks to collaboration we can compete and improve. The competition makes us improve. And thanks to collaboration between rivals, we can compete against other systems for resources. All this as long as the differences between competitors are not insurmountable. The improvement is linked to this phenomenon. For that matter, if they improve, we should also improve.

In this way, a paradox shows up: rivals also need us to improve. That is why they should not let the sports gradient be insurmountable. They must maintain adequate sports differences that allow constant improvement.

As we know, and following the example of cooperation-opposition sports, a team is not only the result of player interaction. An environment is needed where it can develop and evolve into new states. Instabilities and leaps towards new evolutionary forms are the result of internal fluctuations and interactions with the surrounding environment, hence its importance.

The same goes for the human body. If we restrict or enhance access to a resource, such as food, or a stimulus, such as sport training (both being understood as elements of the environment), behaviors that we sought premeditated can be manifested, first sporadically (acute), and over time, permanently or chronically. Behaviors such as the use of fat as an energy substrate, increased muscle mass or learning or improving a motor skill.

When the system is not isolated and interacts with the surrounding environment through the exchange of matter or energy (money and athletes, for example), it is possible that some fluctuations generate more or less permanent sports gradients, keeping the system out of balance (if the equity is break and the system is hierarchized). This is, for example, when in a league a single team or several teams always win to the rest, the sport differences being very marked. The local appearance of order (rupture of symmetry) is only possible in open systems that interact with its surroundings (Mainzer, 2005).

Hence it is important to understand the different flows in sport. For example, we must know if the competition in which we participate presents some concrete characteristic, if it is highly competitive (high uncertainty in the final classification) (Richardson, 2000; Schmidt & Berri, 2001; Rhoads, 2005; Soebbing, 2008; Ribeiro et al., 2010; de Saá Guerra et al., 2012) and / or there is a clear domination of an athlete or club over the rest ((de Saá Guerra, Martín González, García Manso, & García Rodriguez, 2016). Or if it has become so professional that it is more like a market than a competition (Onody & de Castro, 2004; Arjonilla López, 2011). It is transcendental to know the dynamics of the competition in which we participate. Since, if there is no right competitive sports balance (Ribeiro et al., 2010), we will not improve or manage to break certain performance barriers.

It is important to understand that, both in life and in sport, those who are your rivals, become your partners in another context to achieve common goals.

The balanced competition makes us improve. Therefore, if we help our rivals, we will end up improving.



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Bar-Yam, Y. (2003). Complex Systems and Sports. New England Complex Systems Institute. http://necsi.edu/projects/yaneer/SportsBarYam.pdf

de Saá Guerra, Y., Martín González, J. M., García Manso, J. M. G., & García Rodriguez, A. (2016). Clustering and competitive balance in NBA and ACB professional basketball. Apunts, 124(2). http://www.revista-apunts.com/hemeroteca

de Saá Guerra, Y., Martín González, J. M., Sarmiento Montesdeoca, S., Rodríguez Ruiz, D., García-Rodríguez, A., & Juan Manuel García-Manso. (2012). A model for competitiveness level analysis in sports competitions: Application to basketball. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, 391(10), 2997-3004. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physa.2012.01.014

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Soebbing, B. P. (2008). Competitive Balance and Attendance in Major League Baseball: An Empirical Test of the Uncertainty of Outcome Hypothesis. International Journal of Sport Finance, 3(2), 119-126.



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