Wednesday, April 25, 2018

What We Can Learn From Our Rivals: More About Ourselves

At approximately 1:00 pm on Monday, April 23 a cadre of student-athletes from Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep arrived at St. Ignatius College Prep to reclaim for the second time in 19 years the coveted Bruce Mahoney trophy. My classroom, that faces the main entrance of the school was filled with their cheers of excitement at reclaiming what has been gone from Ellis Street for far too long. As my students looked on with disappointment, some kids said "we should boo" knowing that wouldn't be right.  A few turned away, not wanting to see the impact of the loss. Still, others said "farewell for now. See you next year." I told them what I tell my students every year: they are lucky to have a rival. A good rival is never a given, and they have a good one.
What makes for a good rival? In "How Rivalries Bring Out the Best—And Worst," Matthew Hutson writes, 
A rivalry is more than just a competition, according to Gavin Kilduff, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business (who’s currently in Rio for the World Cup). It typically emerges when competitors are similar, when they face off repeatedly, and when they’re about evenly matched. When these circumstances are present, they can lend a given competitive event a psychological weight that goes well beyond its tangible stakes. 
Kilduff has found that rivalry increases both effort and performance. An analysis of competitive runners showed that they shaved more than four seconds per kilometer off their times when a rival was in the same race. In another study, Kilduff and colleagues found that NCAA basketball teams play stronger defense — a good measure of hustle — when competing against rivals. He believes that accentuating rivalry is a good tool for success when a task is effort-based and when there isn’t much leeway for cutting corners. It increases motivation, and “Motivation,” he says, “is a holy grail of management.” Rivalry also increases group cohesion: Universities with more intense rivalries receive donations from more of their alumni, and patriotism is never so great as it is during the World Cup. 
But Kilduff and collaborators have conducted several studies, some of them presented recently at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, showing that rivalry also has a dark side: It increases unethical behavior.
Indeed, a rivalry is much more than just competition. In the throes of a heated contest, truly our rival can be our worst enemy, but both before, after, and in the moment they can be our greatest teacher. Though rivalries magnify differences—many of which are true, I believe that if we can take a step back, we will realize our rival is more similar to us than we care to admit. For example, I'll never forget when a classmate of mine at Notre Dame pointed to this truth about the Trojans of USC. Notre Dame fans will claim that this rival is also known as the "University of Spoiled Children" and for years they compromised academic integrity in order to win national championships. That might be true, but so is the fact that USC fans are fiercely loyal to their alma mater. They are known for proclaiming their allegiance to the Maroon and Gold within the first five minutes of any given conversation. Their interest in Fightin' On is loud and proud. So is their band. The alumni base is so strong and a significant number of the current student body qualifies as a legacy. Sounds a lot like Notre Dame to me...Agh!
Self-knowledge is never that easy to acquire. Perhaps we should look to our rival.

Students of SI and SHC might benefit from such an investigation. Though there are differences, Huston's claim is true: the "competitors are similar." The students who comprise each student body grew up together. They went to the same grade schools and many (may) make a choice to attend the same high school as one of their parents: SI or SHC, Jesuit of Christian Brothers, Red and Blue or Green and Blue both located in the City of St. Francis.

These teams "face off regularly," and the significance of the Bruce Mahoney trophy puts more weight behind those contests. Though the series is comprised of football, basketball and baseball, every varsity team in both schools as their team's "Bruce Mahoney game."

Though no senior class wants to be known as the group that lost the Bruce Mahoney trophy, a rivalry is strengthened "when they are evenly matched." The trophy should not become a relic at either institution; its vibrancy shines brighter when it is claimed or reclaimed by both parties. I would like to think "unethical behavior" does not factor in....
The game came down to the bottom of the 7th inning. 2-1 win for SHC
Ask any athlete, coach, student or alumni about the "group cohesion" that results from the Bruce Mahoneyrivalryy and you will hear hundreds of stories about time, place, people, wins, losses, tears, and joy. And, because of our Catholic heritage, we are able to come together in prayer before each game to bless all those who support and comprise our communities. More importantly, we remember the two men who gave selflessly the greatest gift one could give—their life in service so that we might live in freedom today. I hope we do this in our school-wide prayers on the day of the games, not just on the field. Ours is a storied tradition, a living one. A rivalry worth celebrating.

In "For the Love of the Game" Richard Gaillardetz writes, "In ancient Greek culture, sport was considered from two different perspectives. The first was termed agon and the referred to the spirit of competition and the second was arete, and was oriented toward the pursuit of excellence. There is an inclination to oppose these two but the agnostic character of sport is always, at its best, also a pursuit of excellence." I have no idea if Bill Bruce or Jerry Mahoney would ever guess that their service has become a legacy that allows young men (and hopefully women) to pursue excellence in the way it has and will in the future. Thank you for all you have taught us—in the rivalry and in that journey.

Photo Credits


  1. A small, but important clarification. With SHC's win this year, it has won the Bruce Mahoney trophy three times in the last nine years (08-09, 11-12, and 17-18).

    Anne is a dear friend and a great blogger. I am glad she posted this message. I tell everyone that SHC and SI are blessed by our rivalry. We make each other better. I also say that it is an intense rivalry because it's just a big "family fight" and there's nothing more contentious than a family argument.

    The tradition is powerful because of two great Catholic educational institutions, two great school communities, and the focus of service and self-sacrifice that the rivalry and this specific trophy honor. Thank you for your example, Jerry Mahoney and Bill Bruce.

    1. Gary, Thank you for that correction. It is indeed, important!
      You describe the rivalry so well. As a leader of one of the two institutions in this "family fight" I appreciate your insights!
      And, as a fellow Note Dame alum, I know you understand the analogy. The cheer "Go Irish" has even more meaning for you! Thanks for your post