Ambition vs. Competition: The Skills I Learned as an Athlete

  • Ben Cole
Life & Careers

It is widely known many of the qualities gained through playing sports are desired by employers and transferable to working life. This sentiment may ring true in particular for people who have played team sports, which naturally emphasise communication and cooperation.

Having spent the majority of my life playing football, I’m confident this is truly the case. For example, high-pressure matches are useful “sink-or-swim” exercises. You learn how to put nerves and insecurities to one side; you simply must toughen up mentally in order to perform. These traits definitely didn’t come naturally to me, but through playing football I was able to identify this shortcoming and worked to turn it around. Fast forward to the present and I’ve found that being able to keep calm under pressure comes in handy during interviews, deadlines and when things go wrong (as from time-to-time they inevitably do!).

In my opinion, there is one attribute that’s contribution to success in work is overstated - competitiveness. This is because people believe that a dose of competition ensures that employees are kept on their toes, improves productivity and increases efficiency. But the kind of competitiveness that’s promoted by coaches isn’t what employers seek in potential candidates. In sports, competition necessarily means that when someone gains, another loses. Teams (or individuals) compete single-mindedly against each other to achieve the best possible outcome. In workplaces where competition is promoted too intensely, groups disassemble into lone wolves. This can be counterproductive and can make for an unpleasant environment.

There is another highly relevant and valuable trait – ambition. The difference between ambition and competitiveness is clear and simple. Ambition is the desire to be successful, whereas competitiveness is the desire to be more successful than others. Therefore ambitious people can contribute to an atmosphere in which everyone is pulling in the same direction towards the same desired result.

This sense of cohesion is what has impressed me most during the time I’ve spent at AlphaSights. Whether you’re working on a project, participating in a physical activity after work, or enjoying a couple of drinks at a company event, there is always a genuine feeling of warmth and camaraderie. And when ambitious individuals want to collaborate and work together, the whole can often be greater than the sum of its parts.


Ben joined AlphaSights in May of 2015 and serves as an Associate on our Client Development team in London.