Lessons from Wimbledon: Why a healthy dose of competition is good for your career

Robert Half UK's Phil Sheridan on how some of the greatest Wimbledon champions have shown us that a healthy dose of competition is good for your career.

Most of us can probably agree that coming up against competition brings out a very different side to our personalities. Rivalries for promotions, pitches or new roles can push us to be more productive and to produce stronger work.

Experts believe that being competitive in business drives creativity and helps refine skills like a willingness to push boundaries, solve problems and trust instincts. It’s not just beneficial on an individual basis, either. Competition help us work more closely with one another, releasing chemicals in our brains that deepen the bonds we form.

When you’re put into a situation that brings out your competitive side, you’re forced to regard your contemporaries in a new way. To come out on top, you’ll need to assess their skills and effort, then exceed it by becoming a high-performing employee, which will help you attain your own career goals far faster.

Here are a few of the success stories—and a few of the failures—to come out of The Championships, Wimbledon, and how to be more competitive at work by using them to achieve better personal results.

Competitive success stories from Wimbledon

Marcus Willis – climbed 354 places in a 6-match winning streak

From modest beginnings and a rank of 772, 25-year-old British tennis player, Marcus Willis, surprised spectators and players alike when his 6-match winning streak landed him opposite Roger Federer on centre court.  Although he didn’t take the top spot, he did move forward 354 places to rank 418th in the world.

Willis’ story is a lesson in self-belief, especially for younger professionals. Although he was far from being a seasoned Wimbledon competitor, Willis pushed through games with more experienced players, allowing his hunger for success and passion for the sport to get him to the final centre court game. This same technique can be used to drive interview success and in those first crucial months of a new job.

Serena Williams – collected a 7th Wimbledon win despite critics’ claims of being past her prime

If Willis is an inspiration to those just starting out on the career ladder, Williams is a prime example of how competition is equally beneficial for more seasoned professionals. Last year she won her 7th Wimbledon championship and 22nd Grand Slam title, despite critics claiming that she was past her prime.

Without an abundance of younger talent and pressure from critics influencing her performance, who can say how successful she might have been. It’s also an example of digging deeper to rediscover the passion to achieve future successes in a long-term role, as opposed to recognising when that satisfaction has dwindled and that it may be time to change job roles.

Fred Perry – beat his opponent in less than an hour

Competition is a powerful tool, especially when you have the same ferocity as British tennis player Fred Perry. In 1936, he defeated his opponent in just 45 minutes. It’s a great example of this kinds of results competition can illicit, and how passion, challenge and reward can be powerful success drivers.

Competitive failures that we can all learn from

In Wimbledon, as in the workplace, there are a fair share of failures as well as wins. Learning from them is what generates future success. Here are some examples of Wimbledon failures and how they can help you overcome your own career challenges.

Kei Nishikori – forced out of the competition due to injury

We’ve all been in situations where we know we need to take a break but just can’t bring ourselves to take the time off. World number 9 tennis player, Kei Nishikori, has been forced to drop out of two Wimbledon opportunities after failing to take the time to recover from physical injuries.

Nishikori is a reminder that although competition is a motivating force, it’s also wise to remember that if you aren’t on top form, for whatever reason, it can harm your performance rather than enhance it.

Christie Truman – Lost a match, gained a friend

In 1961, the women’s final was between two British players—Angela Mortimer and Christine Truman. Although Truman eventually lost to Mortimer, the spirit of competition didn’t ruin her respect for the talent and perseverance of her opponent. The two attend Wimbledon together every year and sit with one another.

Being in competition with another colleague doesn’t mean you should be mortal enemies. A mutual enjoyment of the career, task and company should be celebrated and not forgotten, despite the pressurised environment.

Competitive pitfalls to watch out for

Although it has its benefits, remember to exercise your competitive streak with caution. Here are some examples of unhealthy competition in the workplace.

  • Performance insecurity – It can be incredibly tempting to give in to insecurity when you’re put into competitive environment. Try focusing on what makes your skill set unique and what only you can bring to the table. 
  • Instigating unnecessary conflict – Competition doesn’t mean conflict. Keep things friendly and use the extra pressure to grow as a team, rather than using it as a negative force.
  • Focus on the bigger picture – Using competition to grow your career and reach your goals should ultimately be for the better of the company. Reaching targets, winning contracts and growing revenue are all signs that competition is doing you good—avoid pettiness and small wins which are rooted in ego.

Competition, when balanced with teamwork, can yield incredible benefits to you and your career. Take your cue from these Wimbledon winners and let your competitive side help you shine.

Phil Sheridan is senior managing director at Robert Half UK.

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