What Competitive Really Means (I Think)

Originally published Aug 2014

When we talk about our competitiveness or our team's competitiveness we use one very subjective word - competitive. We have intense arguments about competitiveness without actually defining this very subjective word. Subjective language encompasses a broad and very different value system for everyone. Without ever defining the word competitive, our conversations about it are going to be very challenging. There's not one definition of “competitive” we all agree on, but we can develop a more concrete understanding of competitiveness by viewing it on a scale. I talked to people and researched and talked some more and read some stuff, and I created a “competitive scale” as a way to talk about competitiveness more objectively.

I made this scale to wrap my head around the levels of competitiveness. On the lower end of the competitive scale is the skater who enjoys competing, but doesn't care about the outcome (but probably wants to win, because it feels good). This type of competitive skater values the joy of training and playing the game. They enjoy learning and learning/refining skills and emphasize having fun over winning. They probably prefer to play on a team in which everyone has equal playing time. They might view elite training/competing as hyper-competitive.

A little further on the competitive scale is the skater who likes to compete and wants to win. They typically put in significant training time to develop individual skills and team skills and they most likely value intense training and competing over having fun. When it's go-time, they are very focused and serious.

Further on competitive scale is the skater who competes only to win. They are focused on training - physically and mentally - like it's their job. They are most likely to cross-train, analyze and emulate the best skaters and teams, and strive to be the very best teammate they can be. When talking about fun, they probably say that winning is fun. 

At the most intense on the competitive scale is the athlete who competes to the detriment of self and others. Most notably known as Michael Jordan competitive. This guy played three major sports, won two Olympic gold medals and numerous MVP awards, and was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame, among loads of of other accomplishments, but he also punched a teammate in the face during a scrimmage and allegedly ruined some professional athletes' careers by trash talking. Athletes, fans, and media either idolize him or hate him.

In describing these types of competitive skaters, I'm generalizing and describing just the most common types of people I've played with and coached. Not everyone fits into the limited descriptions I provide, but everyone does have a limit of what they are willing to do in order to compete or win. Some people are only willing to sacrifice their time and money, while others will sacrifice their time, money, relationships, and self. I created this incredibly detailed scientific graph as a visual.


Things get hairy when you apply individual definitions of competitiveness to a team or league. We all joined roller derby for different reasons. A lot of people join because they want to be involved with something cool, want to get some exercise, or want to broaden their social circle. Some people find they are not cut out for the sport after they try it out. Some people, within the process of learning the sport, develop a love for the sport and discover they enjoy playing derby and learning new things. Some people discover their inner-athlete and seek to be the best at derby and compete at elite levels. Some people have a completely different experience or some combination of all of these that I've described. Point is that neither response is better than the other. Just different. 

Leagues that exist in small towns/cities do not have a large pool of talent to recruit from, so in order to maintain healthy numbers they need to offer a team for the folks whose main goal is to compete and a team for the folks whose main goal is to have fun. The A/B team structure seems to offer the best of both worlds. There are no set defining characteristics or values for A/B teams in roller derby.  In search of more information about the differences between A and B teams, I consulted with the internets. Here's what I found:

A Team

An A team, or all-star team, represents an organization's highest level of competition. Players are required to tryout for the team and commit a significant amount of time to intense training. They are selected and rostered based on performance, and coaches play the best players in order to win games. Scores matter in relation to ranking and tournament seeding. 

B Team

The B team is a developmental team. Players hone their skills and games are meant to help players gain skill and experience. The team serves as a "feeder" team, as it prepares skaters to move to the A team. 

For most leagues, the B Team functions for two purposes (if your league doesn’t have home teams): 1. it grooms skaters to raise them to A-team level and 2. it serves as a team for players who can't or don't want to train/compete at a higher level. The A team is comprised of the most talented skaters, and in a WFTDA-sanctioned league, the A team represents their league in rankings and can participate in divisional and national tournaments. The A team trains at an intense level and plays to win because their game scores matter for national ranking. Typically, performance standards must be met to be rostered and played in a game. 

Problems arise within a league when 

  • a B team skater or home team skater wants to train/compete at the A-team level and believes they have earned or deserve the opportunity, but hasn't been offered it
  • an A team skater expects B team skaters or home team skaters to train/compete at their level, without recognizing that not all skaters want to train or compete at that level
  • a skater's definition of competitiveness doesn't match up with a team's ethos and that skater attempts change the team

I think these problems can be avoided by asking skaters to look inward to determine their individual level of competitiveness, educating them about the ethos of the teams within the league, and encouraging them to determine what team is the best fit for them. Additionally, leagues should provide clear, transparent information about how a skater carves out their derby career within the league. Skaters should be able to access information about the requirements for each team and feedback about their progress. This involves a lot of work, but skaters are more satisfied with their experience when they understand their individual level of competitiveness and what they are willing to sacrifice in relation to the available teams and the requirements and ethos of the team they aspire to join.

What are your thoughts about competitiveness? How have discussions been problematic or successful when competitiveness is a key component of the discussion?

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Goal-Based Strategies
Originally published June 2014