Varsity Letter: Rivalries add heat, hype

Any spectator could tell that the ice hockey matchup between the Patriots and the Churchill Bulldogs was something more than just another hockey game.

Whether it was the two traditional powerhouse squads aggressively battling it out on the ice or a packed arena with two sections of raucous fans, the Patriot-Bulldog battle was going to be special, even if the game had as much implications on the standings as any other game.

The reason that the arena was so loud and the game so gritty on the ice that Friday night was the same reason that the football team churns out custom t-shirts before their annual game against Churchill and why teams from across our athletic department circle certain days on the calendar the moment their season schedules come out – a rivalry.

The best rivalries are born from competition between two closely matched teams, each with the tenacity and inner drive that pushes them to be the best. Other factors, including geographic proximity, frequent matchups and athletic prowess, increase the intrigue exponentially. For examples, look to the epic battles of the boys’ tennis team against the Whitman Vikings, cross country’s tussles with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Barons, and, of course, any team and the Churchill Bulldogs. The rivalries can also emerge on a personal scale, both in individual sports and between star players in team sports. Despite the similarities that these rivalries share, the effects of these rivalries can vary significantly.

To demonstrate, I’ll borrow examples from the professional sports stage that fit just as well on the high school level. Exhibit one of the effects of a rivalry: Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. These two NBA legends competed against each other in college and later as part of the storied Celtics v. Lakers rivalry, and the games that they played together were highlights of the basketball calendar. Along with basketball talent, the two men shared an intense competitive fire to be the best and bring their team championships. Each year Bird and Johnson would work harder than before so that they could beat the other, forming a fierce rivalry that elevated both of them.

Exhibit number two: the “Tiger Woods effect.” Most of us were too young to be watching golf back in Tiger Woods’ prime, but the name of the greatest golfer in the world seemed to be everywhere. Woods was on another level from his competition, racking up titles and bringing golf into the cultural spotlight. Interestingly, a phenomenon known as the Tiger Woods effect emerged. Golfers played worse when they knew Tiger was competing against them, instilling dread that took them off their “A” game in a sport that demands total precision. In these tournaments, the mere presence of a rival got in the heads of Woods’ competitors and detracted from performance, instead of bringing out the best in them like the Magic-Bird rivalry.

Rivalries are special because they can make the high school sports experience richer and more meaningful, but effects can vary from athlete to athlete. To get the most out of a rivalry, perspective is key. Athletes should frame a rivalry as an opportunity to improve instead of added pressure. As the “Eye of the Tiger” lyric goes, rise up to the challenge of your rival.

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