How Having a Rival Can Be Your Greatest Advantage

UPDATED: August 23, 2016
PUBLISHED: August 23, 2016

Somebody had to win. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had been playing tennis for almost five hours, and the sun was about set on Centre Court at the All England Club in London. When Federer hit a shot into the net to give Nadal the victory, Nadal immediately fell to the ground in celebration, his arms and legs spread across the grass like an X. It was Nadal’s first Wimbledon title, and it ended Federer’s five-year, 65-match winning streak on grass courts.

Related: Top of Mind: 6 Ways to Stay Ahead of the Competition

Two months after the 2008 Wimbledon final, Nadal knocked Federer from the top of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Rankings, a position Federer had held for 237 consecutive weeks. As in all great rivalries, these tennis stars share an intense desire to defeat a particular competitor. Federer and Nadal have played some of their greatest matches against each other. And that’s not by coincidence. In This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon, L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers write, “Something about having an opponent gets us to dig deeper, into otherwise-untapped reserves.”


“Rivalry is this mega-competition where it’s not just one team against another, but it’s very targeted. Both parties have told themselves, This matters more.”


Rivalry “encourages innovation,” Wertheim says. “For all the myths in sports, competition being a healthy thing is not myth. It’s something that can be demonstrably shown to be true. Rivalry is this mega-competition where it’s not just one team against another, but it’s very targeted. Both parties have told themselves, This matters more.”

The Rivalry Formula

Gavin J. Kilduff, Ph.D., assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, partnered with Hilary Anger Elfenbein, Ph.D., of Washington University in St. Louis and Barry M. Shaw, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley to examine whether rivalry affects motivation and performance. In an Academy of Management Journal report on their study, they write that three factors create a rivalry: similarity, repeated competition and competitiveness. Once a rivalry has been established, they say, both parties are more motivated to win, pushing themselves to try harder.

Perhaps surprisingly, rivals are often alike in many ways, Sommers says. When Nadal and Federer began their professional careers, they were young, up-and-coming European tennis stars—Nadal from Spain, Federer from Switzerland. “When you think of your hated rival, it conjures up this image of your polar opposite, but it’s not that at all,” Sommers says. “To most outsiders, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox fans and the teams themselves have a lot in common. There is something about being similar to that other entity that heightens rivalry.”

But there’s more to rivalry than shared traits. For instance, two parties must compete several times. “Prior interaction is central to rivalry, as relationships are generally formed over time and via repeated interaction,” Kilduff writes. Nadal and Federer met for the first time in March 2004 at the Miami Masters. Nadal was 17; Federer, five years older. Nadal was ranked No. 34 in the world; Federer, No. 1. Nadal defeated Federer in straight sets, but not much was made of the upset at the time—it was written off as a bad day for Federer. Over the next several years, the two regularly competed for the No. 1 world ranking.

Why a Rival Can Make You Better

As the rivalry grew, so did their level of competitiveness against each other. Kilduff writes that “rivalry magnifies competitors’ psychological stakes independent of objective stakes,” which leads participants to depart from typical behavior to one that is more ambitious and fierce.

That happened to the two tennis stars in 2007. After losing to Federer in the semifinals of the Masters Cup in China, Nadal said, “If [Federer] is playing very good, I have to play unbelievable. If not, it’s impossible, especially if he’s playing with good confidence. When he’s 100 percent, he’s playing in another league. It’s impossible to stop him. I fight. I fight. I fight.”

Today Federer has won 88 career titles, and Nadal has 69. Head to head, Nadal has defeated Federer 23 out of 34 times. Think about someone in your industry who could push you to work harder. Consider the idea of pursuing your own good-natured rivalry to give you an extra edge as Nadal and Federer do.

The Rivalry Edge

When similarity, repeated competition and competitiveness are in play, rivalry is almost guaranteed to motivate someone to work harder to prevail. In 2014 Kilduff published “Drive to Win: Rivalry, Motivation, and Performance” in Social Psychology and Personality Science. The report detailed his study of long-distance runners and their race results, which documented how rivalry can lead to an increased effort to succeed. He chose to analyze runners for three reasons:

1. “Competition occurs frequently.”

2. “There is a fairly clear link between motivation and performance.”

3. “Performance is largely independent, mitigating issues with studying the effects of rivalry on competitive performance in team sports.”

As part of his study, Kilduff quizzed 72 runners from a running club in the northeastern U.S. Among club members who had run at least five times in the last year, Kilduff found that 76.5 percent reported a rivalry toward at least one other runner in their area. Runners who said they had a rival also said their feelings toward that opponent motivated them to push themselves, run harder or perform better.


In a 5K race, a runner could improve his time by nearly 25 seconds with a rival in the race, as opposed to a race against no rivals.


Kilduff then analyzed the results of 112 races from 2007 to 2009 from a midsized U.S. town to see whether these runners really did run faster when running against their rivals. Kilduff found that in the presence of at least one rival, runners were as much as 4.92 seconds faster per kilometer—meaning that in a 5K race (3.1 miles), a runner could improve his time by nearly 25 seconds with a rival in the race, as opposed to a race against no rivals.

Related: Competition Can Push You to Do Incredible Things

“Rivals have a past history of competition,” Kilduff says. “They really know one another. They generally have been evenly matched in the past. As a result of that history and relationship, there seems to be more at stake psychologically when rivals compete. If you’re competing against a rival, you might be very motivated because you gain subjective value or satisfaction from defeating a rival [that’s] independent of what you can tangibly gain.” In other words, rivalry leads to a motivation to win, which generates a superior effort.

Rivalry can have disadvantages, though. Along with giving rise to jealousy and tension, Sommers warns that when taken too seriously, rivalry can push people toward unethical behavior. “You worry about rivalry if it gets you so amped up that you’re not able to think things through carefully. If we’re so motivated to come out on top in a particular competition or marketplace, being pitted against a rival can be one of those factors that subtly nudges you toward a slight form of unethical behavior but then evolves and gets worse. It is certainly a double-edged sword.”

Beyond Sports

Rivalry drives business competitors, too. For years Pepsi has tried to sell more than Coca-Cola, IBM has tried to out-innovate Hewlett-Packard, Hertz has tried to attract more drivers than Avis, and FedEx has tried to deliver more packages than UPS. And the list goes on.

Wertheim says competition shouldn’t be feared. “Having a firm that you compete against is a good thing. It helps if both parties are part of a consensual rivalry but [consent isn’t necessary].” For instance, Google might not see Apple as an adversary, but “[if] Apple is hell-bent on beating Google, it’s still helpful for Apple,” he says.

Why a Rival Can Make You BetterCONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES

Sommers points out that the idea of rivalry was a priority for Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple. “It was always very important to Apple to have an identifiable rival—sort of a nemesis you’re holding yourself up against. Whether that was Microsoft, IBM or Google or whoever it was, whether it was real or somewhat manufactured, it came to be important in Jobs’ mind to motivate the workforce, marshal the troops and get them working hard.”

Potential business rivals emerge constantly, with every startup boasting the next big idea. A classic example is Dollar Shave Club, inspired by the consumer pain of co-founder and CEO Michael Dubin. He hated shopping for razors. “It was a hassle to find time to go to the local drugstore, track down the clerk and have him unlock the razor fortress. And the razors were always expensive. I knew there had to be a way that guys could buy affordable, high-quality razors without having to jump through all those hoops.”

In 2013, when Dollar Shave Club was 2 years old, Andy Katz-Mayfield and Jeff Raider founded Harry’s. Both subscription services deliver razors to consumers for accessible prices. Their 3-year-old rivalry is a growing one that pushes both companies to improve services. They are disrupting an industry that has been dominated by Gillette for more than a century.

To grow the business and distinguish it from competitors, Dubin says Dollar Shave Club functions as an experience company. “Every aspect, from the moment you see an advertisement to when you receive your box, is painstakingly developed to create a deeply engaging experience. This focus on experience is what creates an emotional connection between the consumer and the brand—that alone separates us from other competitors.” Harry’s declined to comment for this story.

Find Your Foe

Think about an area of your life you’d like to improve.

If it’s your golf game, find someone who matches your skill level and play that person regularly. Or if you own a business, fuel a sense of rivalry against a competing company by explaining to your team how much money the company loses when potential clients opt to do business with a competitor. “At the company or organizational level, there can be an additional benefit of rivalry—groups that have a visible rival group often experience higher levels of loyalty, commitment and identification within the group,” Kilduff says.

Why a Rival Can Make You Better

At the end of the day, rivals respect each other. Few people understand how challenging it is to become a top tennis player, but Nadal and Federer do. Few people know what it’s like to establish a tech powerhouse, something Jobs and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates did. Despite their longtime rivalry, Gates wrote a letter to Jobs—terminally ill at the time—saying that he should take pride in his and Apple’s success. Jobs reportedly kept the letter at his bedside.

A rival shouldn’t be someone you hate for being your competition, but someone you admire, who will push you to be better. “Love and hate are not necessarily polar opposites,” Sommers says, “but in some respects only a few degrees away from one another.”

Related: Inspire and Be Inspired


This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Jesus Jimenez is a staff writer for Dallas Morning News. He eats, breathes and sleeps Texas Rangers baseball. He also enjoys running, traveling and buying cool socks.