Human Performance Performance | 10.10.17

Why a Rival Can Push Teams and Athletes to Greater Heights

Professor Gavin Kilduff explains how rivalries can be used as motivational fuel.

Rafael Nadal turned to the HawkEye review system but it could not save him. Roger Federer’s superb forehand moments earlier to clinch the 2017 Australian Open also confirmed the Swiss player’s record 19th men’s single grand slam title at the expense of his greatest rival. It was all the more remarkable given that it was Federer’s first grand slam title in five years, won at 35 years of age, after he had spent almost six months out of the game in 2016 due to a knee injury.

More impressive still, Federer was a break down in the fifth set having received treatment on his right quad while facing an opponent who had previously beaten him 23 times in 34 matches. How did he find the resolve to come back and perform in a manner unseen in several seasons? Perhaps it was the presence of his nemesis across the net suggests Gavin Kilduff, Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at the New York University Stern School of Business. In a Leaders Performance Institute exclusive, Professor Kilduff delves into his research on sporting rivalries and explains how they can help athletes and teams to reach new heights.

It is a question one could pose to either Federer or Nadal: just how much better does having a rival make us perform?

A major focus of my research has been examining how rivalries develop among individuals, groups, and organizations, and how they affect competitive behavior and decision-making. I have found rivalry to be a powerful motivator because a rival can be used as fuel for individual athletes and teams to train harder and push themselves on to new heights of performance. Put simply, people are more motivated when competing against their rivals as opposed to non-rival competitors with who they do not share the same history. In turn, this translates into greater performance on effort-based tasks, which of course includes numerous sports. For example, I found that long-distance runners run significantly faster in races in which their rivals are present – to the tune of an estimated five seconds per kilometer increase in a 5K race. In other research, my co-authors (Christopher To, Lisa Ordoñez, and Maurice Schweitzer) and I found that coming face to face with a rival leads to increased heartrate, as well as skin conductance, which is a measure of stress level.  And, in ongoing research with my colleagues from Columbia University (Brian Pike and Adam Galinsky) we are also finding evidence that the success of a rival can serve as long-lasting motivational fuel. For example, if a team’s rival wins the championship, that team will be highly motivated during the subsequent offseason and season.

A second benefit of rivalry in sport is that, at the group level, it can lead to increased identification and commitment in group members. The presence of a salient and longstanding group rival, such as another team or a university, can increase the level of identification and commitment of group members, likely by providing them with a common purpose or mission, as well as serving as an important component of the group’s history and culture. I found that teams involved in longstanding rivalries typically benefited from stronger loyalty from their fans.

At this point it is important to note the difference between a rivalry and pure competition. Pure competition is very rational; competitors are motivated by whatever prize or stakes they stand to achieve by winning the current contest, whether that is prize money or reputational benefits. With rivalry, however, there is an existing relationship and history between the competitors, as well as an expectation of future competitions, that imbues the contest with additional psychological and emotional elements. For example, competitors feel as though their legacy and sense of self-worth are more at stake in contests against their rivals; thus, the psychological stakes of the competition are higher, even if the tangible stakes are low. Indeed, rivalry is fascinating because it is a complex relationship; it is not just a situation in which two competitors may hate each other; it is more a situation in which two competitors are inextricably linked to one another and have a shared history of competition.


Put simply, people are more motivated when competing against their rivals as opposed to non-rival competitors with who they do not share the same history.


So how can a team begin to harness the power of a rival? Teams and their coaches can highlight the presence of their rivals, as well as the history of the rivalry, to motivate team members. Any recent successes by a rival can be especially motivational. Furthermore, in reaching out to fans, it may be beneficial to highlight the team’s rivalry(ies) to garner increased support.

Of course, not all teams have a natural rival and it can be a challenge to form a full-blown rivalry overnight. However, to the extent possible, athletes and teams without rivals should try to pick some. Ideally, these will be competitors who are fairly similar to the focal athlete or team, who the focal athlete/team competes against at least moderately often, and who are perhaps just slightly higher-ranked. As the focal athlete/team continues to compare their performance with that of the rival, feelings of rivalry will start to form and that will provide motivation.

That is not to say that fomenting a rivalry is without risk; indeed rivalry can be a double-edged sword, leading to greater unethical and risky behaviour. In research I undertook with colleagues from Columbia University (Adam Galinsky), Cambridge University and Queens College (Edoardo Gallo), and the University of Reading (J. James Reade), we found that matches between rival soccer teams have a higher frequency of yellow and red cards, and that fans of rival universities are more likely to lie to each other than fans of non-rival institutions. In separate work, which I completed with colleagues from New York University (Christopher To), the University of Arizona (Lisa Ordoñez) and the University of Pennsylvania (Maurice Schweitzer), we found that in the NFL, teams are more likely to attempt fourth down and two-point conversions when competing against their rivals.

How do we protect against these possible downsides to rivalry? The rules or laws of sport are one great way in which behavior is constrained, thus reducing the ability for athletes to cheat or engage in antisocial actions. Further, from a decision-making perspective, it may make sense for athletes and coaches to make decisions a priori, if possible, rather than during the heat of battle. Another technique may be to consult someone who is less-engaged in the rivalry as an objective adviser.

By taking such steps, a team or athlete can begin to harness the positive power of a rival who makes them go further and forces them to change their game for the better.


Kilduff, G. J. 2014. Driven to win: Rivalry, motivation, and performance. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 944-952.

Kilduff, G. J., Galinsky, A. D., Gallo, E., & Reade, J. J. 2016. Whatever it takes to win: Rivalry increases unethical behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 59, 1508-1534.

To, C., Kilduff, G. J., Ordoñez, L., & Schweitzer, M. Going for it on fourth down: Rivalry increases risk-taking, physiological arousal, and promotion focus. In press at Academy of Management Journal.

Pike, B, Kilduff, G. J., & Galinsky, A. D. The long shadow and madness of rivalry: Rivalry motivates performance not just today but tomorrow. Working paper.