How To Be Competitive (When You're Taught To Be Cooperative)

February 25, 2021

Hilary Achauer

Two female CrossFit athletes give their advice for developing a competitive mindset.

Christina Spencer grew up playing sports, starting with T-ball and karate, then moving on to volleyball, basketball, and softball. Part of her competitive drive came from her father, who she said was the first feminist she knew. When she was a little girl her dad always told her she could do anything she wanted if she put her mind to it. 

He then added an extra piece of advice. 

“Know you’ll have to work harder than most,” Spencer’s father told her, “because you’re a female and because you’re Black.”

CrossFit Games competitor Amanda Barnhart was also an athlete her whole life. She started ballet and gymnastics at age 3 and then added in swimming. In high school she lettered in three sports — volleyball, swimming, and track — all four years. When she graduated she accomplished her ambitious goal of collecting 12 varsity letters.

She remembers being the only girl in her high school who earned 12 varsity letters. While people admired her for her athletic skill, she said she got a lot of “GI Jane” comments. 

“I don’t want to say they called me a guy, but they called me a GI Jane. And that wasn’t a compliment by any means,” Barnhart said. 

Then there was the weight room in college.

At Cleveland State University both the women’s and men’s teams swam together and trained together. This put Barnhart in the weight room with the men.

“I was really strong back then, and a lot of the guys were not super strong, so a lot of times I could clean as much as them or back squat as much as them,” Barnhart said.

Even so, the guys pushed back when Barnhart wanted to share their barbells at the front of the room. They told her she should go to the back of the room with the other women. 

“I said, ‘No, we are lifting just as much as you. We get the rack in the front,’” Barnhart said. 

“It doesn’t matter our gender. I’m going on this rack with you, because I’m going to squat the same weight as you. I’m not going in the back because I’m a female. It’s not fair,” she remembers thinking.

Choosing the Harder Maze

To be a woman in a competitive space — especially a minority woman — means to resist the powerful messages our culture communicates about women and competition.

Muriel Niederle, a professor at Stanford, has studied the effects of gendered norms on how men and women approach competition. She devised a number of clever experiments to measure the difference in how men and women behave in competitive situations.

In one study, the researchers set up two experiments, a non-competitive version and a competitive version. The competitive version was a winner-takes-all tournament. The overall winner got $2 for every correct answer, and the other players in the tournament got nothing. In the non-competitive version the stakes were lower — people got 50 cents for every right answer, even if they weren’t the overall winner. 

Niederle and her team found that when women and men were forced to enter the competitive version, women won just as much as the men. However, when given a choice, 75 percent of the men chose to enter the competitive tournament as opposed to 35 percent of the women. She ran another experiment in which participants could choose to work on easy or hard mazes — the hard mazes paid more. After a chance to practice on the easy mazes, which gave the researchers an opportunity to evaluate their skills, 88 percent of the men with the worse maze skills decided to choose the harder mazes. As for the women? Only 42 percent of that group chose to tackle the harder mazes.

All these studies point to one thing — a socially conditioned lack of confidence  unrelated to ability.  

”Again, this is a story about confidence in yourself,” The Washington Post article said. “Men have it. Women seem to lack it. But a little encouragement can go a long way.”

Both Spencer and Barnhart learned how to be competitive in environments where they were outnumbered, where they had to speak up or stand out to follow their competitive dreams. It’s probably not a coincidence that both athletes have developed strategies for handling the mental aspect of competing. The mindset and strategies they’ve adopted during competitions are useful in any type of competitive situation, from an Open workout to a local competition or even your daily CrossFit workout. 

Embrace the Nerves

Spencer, 39, is a Level 3 CrossFit Trainer. She owns Junction City CrossFit in Junction City, Kansas, and runs IronMVMNT, which offers nutrition coaching and fitness programming. She’s been in the military since 2003, and when she started CrossFit in 2008 while on a mobilization in Kuwait, she immediately fell in love. Once she returned home from Kuwait she kept doing CrossFit and then competed as an individual at Regionals in 2010 and on a team in 2011.

When she stepped on the competition floor in 2010, she noticed she was the only Black person among hundreds of athletes. 

“You definitely wonder if you are accepted or if you’re wanted there. But I live in Kansas, a very white space. I’m in the military, a very male-heavy white space as well. And so it wasn’t abnormal for me to go to a place and know I was one of very few Black people there anyway,” Spencer said. 

“I think having that experience helped me kind of survive at CrossFit as well. It didn’t feel all that abnormal to me,” she said.


Christina Spencer doing a muscle-up
Christina Spencer competing in CrossFit

Spencer said she leaned on her outgoing personality, her performance, and her innate competitive spirit when competing in CrossFit. While she found the experience of being at Regionals intimidating, partly because she’s 5’2” and 135 lb., smaller than most of the other female CrossFit athletes, Spencer said her strategy has always been to embrace her feelings of nervousness in a competitive setting. 

“It’s something you have to practice, and you have to put yourself in those situations and be OK getting uncomfortable,” Spencer said. 

She tells the competitive athletes at her gym to embrace the nervousness as well, that the nerves they are feeling are normal. It’s all part of the process. 

“I think a lot of people try to play it down. That actually makes it worse. If you try to just ignore or pretend it’s not real, your body is like, ‘This is real, and we’re panicking.’” 

Instead of thinking the nerves mean you’re not prepared or you won’t do well, Spencer said to think of the adrenaline coursing through your veins as a sign that your body is preparing to go into competition mode.

“Don’t stop it from happening, or don’t try to suppress it,” she said. 

This is especially important advice for women who didn’t grow up competing, and who might be feeling these pre-competition nerves for the first time. When you feel that anxiety, know that it’s normal and even useful.

You Have a Choice

Barnhart, 28, started CrossFit in college but didn’t get serious about it until she graduated from physical therapy school in 2017. After a year of intense training she placed third at the 2018 Central Regional and then took 15th at the Games that year. In 2019 she placed seventh at the CrossFit Games in Madison, Wisconsin, and in 2020 placed seventh again in Stage 1 of the Games, just two spots from qualifying for the in-person competition in Stage 2. 

Like Spencer, Barnhart has learned to welcome the nervousness that comes before a competition, and she thinks feeling nervous is a good thing.

“If you’re not nervous, then you probably don’t care enough, and that takes away that competitive part,” Barnhart said. She said the secret is to not dwell on your feelings of nervousness. Keep the focus on what you need to do, but don’t try to push away the nerves.

Barnhart always thinks in advance about what she’s going to do when it starts to hurt in the workout.

“If you don’t have a game plan, it’s really easy to just go, ‘Ahhh! It hurts’ and just freak out,” Barnhart said. When it starts to hurt, she focuses on her breath as long as possible. Then when the workout pain starts to get really bad, she tells herself she has a choice to keep going. 

“As simple as it sounds, it truly is a choice. You do have that choice, and it’s so easy in an Open workout to just make the choice to slow down. And I try to just tell myself, ‘You’re not gonna die. Your breath is still there. Make the choice to keep moving and keep digging.’ And before you know it, it’s over,” she said. 

When Barnhart trips on her rope during double-unders or misses a lift, she tries to stay as calm as possible. 

“The last thing you want to do is panic and try to rush it. You move quickly and smoothly but always with intention. The second you start to rush it and get all crazy is when you’re gonna mess up again and get more frustrated,” she said.

During competition it’s easy to get mad and dwell on the mistake, but Barnhart said that means exerting energy on something you have no control over.

“You need every ounce of that energy for the workout,” Barnhart said. “I just try to not dwell on it and stay calm as much as I possibly can, because you need that energy.” 

Take up Space

We all come to competition with our own stories, our own history. For many women who don’t have a history of competing, the process is about learning to take up space and finding that competitive drive within. It sometimes means entering a space where you are in the minority or speaking up when someone tells you to move to the back of the weight room. 

It means understanding that even the best athletes feel nervous, and those feelings have no bearing on your performance. It means entering the higher-stakes game and choosing the harder maze.