how to compete without destroying the friendship_ready to feis_irish dance
Mental Preparation

How to compete without destroying the friendship

One of the greatest joys of Irish dancing is the friendships. Whether it’s the classmates you started with as beginners and grew up together, the feis friends you see every weekend as you travel the countryside together, or those international friends who you chat to online and see once a year, the friendships in Irish dancing are special and long lasting. Many of these friendships stem from competition – the same age group, the same class – so while the friendships are strong, the competitive nature of dancing can sometimes get in the way.


What happens when competition gets in the way of friendship, or more importantly, teamwork? It can be hard to be friends, be teammates, and also step on stage as competitors. According to sports psychologist Dr. Neal Bowes, Ph.D., the skill we need to be working on is separation. “Friendships and competing are two completely separate things. When you’re competing, when it’s time to get changed and warm up, you’re separated. You’re now in competition mode, and when you’re in competition mode you’re there to to focus on you and what your job is, either as an individual or as a team.” Dr. Bowes goes on to say, “the only thing you should be focused on in that period of time is competing. Once you’re finished, you’re finished, then you stop being a competitor and now you’re a friend. The brain is designed for separation.”

Class Time

But what if your biggest competitors are in your own class? One of the most interesting things about competition is actually the latin root of the word. Dr. Joseph Havlick, Ph.D. explains, “The etymology of the word is working side by side to be the best you can be and having your competition actually push you further. So the whole idea behind competing in the true sense of the word is being rivals but also striving together.” Dr. Havlick also points out what a blessing it is to have competition right in your very own class, but that you need to approach it in the right way. “The mentality should be that it’s a gift to have this person in my life because they are really good. If I don’t bring my A game they are going to do better than I am. So I have to up my game – it increases my focus and my concentration on what I’m doing because I’m going to use that to inspire me to do my best, not to beat them, not to humiliate them, not to hurt them in any way, but to enhance myself and thank you for been there.”

For teachers looking to foster this type of environment, the emphasis needs to be on personal competition – making sure that if you want a competitive environment, then the competition is against yourself. Dr. Bowes points out the need to “cooperate and collaborate rather than compete”. The attitude from students should be “hey can we work on this together as opposed to saying, well I don’t want to work with you and I don’t want to be friends with you or you know I wanted to be friends with you but it’s kind of difficult because everybody compares me to you”, explains Dr. Bowes. “All those things go away when a teacher is saying, hey you know your job is competing against yourselves. That’s the reason everybody comes to the studio and when you work hard to get better yourself, collectively we will all be better. Then allow time at the end to socialize, but within class time there really shouldn’t be a lot of socialization. This line says it’s okay to be friends and be learning and competing all at the same time.”

A Sporting Gesture

Regardless of whether the results go your way, or you have a bad day, Dr. Havlick expresses the importance of the sporting gesture at the conclusion of competition. “Sportsmanship is the ultimate manifestation of being an athlete, and at the end of the day it expresses to each other our appreciation of the hard work that we put in.” Whether this is a hug, a handshake, or a simple congratulations, a simple gesture creates that separation and acknowledges that while competition is good, friendship and sportsmanship are more important.

Do you compete against friends or classmates? How do you separate friendship from competition? Leave a comment below or join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Image: courtesy of MJ Collins-Escobar
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