Most people who know the least bit about me know I’m a huge University of Louisville athletics fan, and I’m also an avid cyclist. I’ve been a season ticket holder for UofL football and basketball for over ten years, and I’ve been involved in organized cycling for seven plus years. It is through these two interests in conjunction with a childhood of playing competitive baseball I have developed a strong appreciation for the value of solid competition. It has also taught me that in order to achieve improvement, you need to compete against those stronger/better than you.
This Thursday’s West Virginia versus UofL football game is a case study in the value of strong competition. Last year, Louisville (and others) joined the Big East Conference, and many said it was a conference undeserving of a BCS bowl bid and was a severely watered down football product. Nobody questioned the level of competition in basketball, but the losses of Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech in football was supposed to be too great a hurdle to climb in terms of bonafide respectability. Nobody was counting on Louisville and West Virginia raising the football bar to Top 5 levels so quickly. West Virginia comes in ranked #3; Louisville #5. The high level of play by both programs already has forced programs like Rutgers and Pittsburgh to improve, making the overall conference a pretty formidable league all of a sudden. Syracuse and Cincinnati have shown improvement but are likely a couple of years away from being real threats. UConn and South Florida aren’t pushovers necessarily, but they haven’t quite kept up with the others in the league. The league itself has moved ahead of traditional powerhouse leagues in the computer rankings because it is much stronger top to bottom than many envisioned. My belief is the top tier programs have forced the bottom tier to step it up or risk embarrassment and humiliation (a very strong motivator).
In cycling, there are five divisions in road racing (Categories 1-5 with 1 being strongest). I’m admittedly not in that strongest group (I raced Category 4 this past season), but I frequently train with some of the category 1-3 guys when improvement is my focus. Time constraints often prevent many of the members on our team from training the 20+ hours/week it requires to race at that top level. If I consistently train with my peer group, however, I’ll merely maintain my existing fitness levels, and I’m less likely to move up to a higher category. Our team (Team Louisville) has been debating various improvement training programs on our team message board the past few days so that’s why I’m including this in today’s post. Some have called for our team to strictly train together with no other teams involved over the winter, and others have suggested that we mix it up with stronger teams in order to improve our overall team. The problem with training just with our team is our team is composed of cyclists of very similar abilities and styles. To me, it’s not an endeavor that is going to improve our team or teach it anything new. That will come with training consistently with stronger riders and teams which brings me back to the value of stiff competition.
If you are looking to improve your business or any aspect of your life, look at businesses or individuals that are currently better than you at whatever it is you’re looking to improve upon. If you merely continue challenging yourself in a manner you are accustomed, you will succeed at developing a plateau not improvement. Sports provide several good examples of this concept in action, and the lessons should not be lost in the business world.