What Makes a Great Rivalry?

My competitive nature manifests itself in various ways – healthy and worrisome – but one of the most important to me has been deep friendships I’ve created alongside strong competitive rivalries.

The best rivalries are the ones where the scales tip back and forth.

If it is clear who the better participant is, there is no soil for a rivalry to grow. Fertile ground requires head to head competition, close victories and a tide that turns.

To have a rivalry, each side needs material to craft their own story of victory and enough doubt to undermine that of the other.

It sometimes amazes me that Chris continues to make an argument for being a better runner than I am. Across a wide range of the most popular running race, I have a faster personal record – 1500, 5k, Marathon. Time and time again I’ve crushed him on the battle field – the east coast cross country championships in 2005, the 5k in his home town in 2008, the grudge match 10k in my home town a month later, the 3.5 mile corporate challenge in 2011.

Yet he persists to make a case for himself. His faster PRs in the 3k steeplechase, 8k & 10k. His wins in the PAC conference finals in 2005, Steelers 5k in 2007, Big Sur 5k in 2013 or recently the New York City Marathon of 2016.

We each find our ways to leverage the ambiguity – to craft a story around the events we feel are most important and downplay those that don’t support our case. We find places to add doubt – the course being short, the non-standard track, the magical 8mph tailwind or the downhill grade that cut off 5 minutes.

The best rivalries have frequency.

Like nutrients to a developing plant, frequent competition is required for a rivalry to grow. Some of the greatest sports rivalries are built around regular competition, however arbitrary it is.

Look to the rivalries of the NFL, where divisional teams play each other twice per year – once at each opponents home field. Many of the best rivalries in football come out of that setup. The last defeat is always fresh for one team and they are eager to set the record straight.

The best rivalries bask in their own existence.

Trash talk is an existential confirmation for a rivalry – as it grows and deepens, so does the rivalry.

Like sunshine to the developing crop, continual talk about the competition provides the energy to sustain a rivalry. Talk about the same thing, with new angles, new words, new data.

The best rivalries have players who serve a unique role in the story.

The archetypes of competition; good vs evil, the underdog vs the favorite, newcomer vs the reigning champion, natural talent vs hard work. Our sports stories are filled with these same molds again and again. We understand them and relate to them. They are the structure that shapes the vine, the supports that show it where to grow.

I like to play David, the underdog who turns the tables. I study the competition, I study the game, I find the unexploited angle, some new way to stretch the game beyond what was previously thought possible. I lock in on a strategy and practice like crazy. I go for broke on a stone in a sling.

Unlike the 15 minute quarters of the NFL, the 3 minute quarters of our Madden games heavily favored the pass. Running just took up too much time. I picked the team who’s quarterback had the best arm – it didn’t matter what team they were in real life, the video game had numbers programmed into it and I was going with the highest ones. I got really good at throwing through the air and blocking him attempts to do the same.

The best rivalries have their moments of epic grandeur.

After living with Daniel for more than a year, I was moving away to another city one spring. We decided to settle our battle once and for all, a video game fight with 99 lives each, as opposed to the 3 we normally played with. The battle raged for hours. There were moments the result seemed clear, followed but unprecedented comebacks.

We gather now, years later, both of us married and talk about that day. Many small moments add up to create a full history, but somehow the biggest moments become more than the sum of their parts. They are the fruit on the vine, the bright bursts of color that stand out from everything around them.

The best rivalries make you better.

One thing rings true across every type of competition, every competitor. Their existence has pushed me beyond what I could have achieved on my own.

I often look at competitors like rungs in a ladder, the work to get to each one puts you in reach of the next.

Rivals are different though, they move with you. They are the run you can reach and sometimes pull up on, but never move past. If you take the time to look back down though, you will see that you are both higher together than you would have been.

Rivals push you to become better at the competition, but their existence also pushes you to better know yourself. They force you to introspect and rethink, to prioritize and question. The competition itself is a means for producing something else inside of you.

They push you to transform. They are the process. The fermentation of the fruit in wooden barrels sacked on shelves.

The best rivalries develop into more.

The heart of any rivalry is a shared love for a common activity. Two forces of talent going after a common goal. Both finding their limits in each other.

When nurtured properly, these rivalries will develop into a deep respect. Two giants standing alone, who finally have perspective into their similarities to each other and differences from all others.

What two deadlocked generals, in a future time of piece, wouldn’t want to dine together, to converse with the only other person able to match their wit in their particular field of battle.

The friendships that develop are the wine made from the harvest of the rivalry.

Thinking back, my rivals from any period are among my best friends from those days as well. Shane, who I ran with & against in elementary school, Katie, who would see which one of us could drink the most water in a sitting on summer afternoons, Mike, who’s Steelers lined up against my Packers on the TV many times in our freshman dorm, Chris, who I’ve raced against more than anyone else, or Daniel, for whom I lug around a 20 year old video game system if our paths might cross.

These are the competitors I have gotten to know, some who have become lifelong friends.

Rivalries consist of so much, but for competitive people like myself, they become an important part of life – a means to get to know ourselves and a key way that we connect with others. What makes a great rivalry is great people and great passion. In the right conditions those can develop and transform into much more.