Academic journal article Journal of Sport Behavior

The Contesting Theory of Competition: Evidence from Metaphor Priming

Academic journal article Journal of Sport Behavior

The Contesting Theory of Competition: Evidence from Metaphor Priming

Article excerpt

Contesting is at the heart of the sport process and experience. Over the years, however, various educators and psychologists (e.g., Johnson & Johnson, 1989) have raised serious concerns about potential negative impacts of putting people into structured arrangements where the success of some requires the failure of others. According to Kohn's (1992) review of the literature, competition inherently produces dysfunctional stress, intrapsychic anxiety, and interpersonal hostility. But the fundamental assumptions that have guided most research on "competition," beginning with the classic work of Deutsch (1949a, 1949b), have yet to be refined in light of more recent work in social and cognitive psychology. In this article, we introduce a new framework for investigating contesting that can provide alternative guidance to sport researchers and practitioners.

The theoretical work of classic competition theorists like Deutsch (1949a), Sherif and colleagues (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1988), Johnson and Johnson (1989), and Kohn (1992) has emphasized the external goal structure of the contest. Essentially, the social and psychological influences of the contest are thought to flow from the activation of mutually exclusive goals in response to the contest's win/lose structure.

According to contesting theory (Shields & Bredemeier, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2011a, 2011b; Shields, Funk, & Bredemeier, 2015), however, the meaning that a contest has for a participant depends less on the contest's structure than on how the contest is interpreted. It depends on implicit answers to such questions as, "why are we contesting," and, "what kind of activity is a contest?"

The interpretation is done, according to Shields and Bredemeier (2009), through the use of conceptual metaphor. More specifically, contesting theory holds that there are two distinct ways of interpreting contests, and Shields and Bredemeier use the terms competition and decompetition to designate the two alternate ways of interpreting and enacting a contest. In genuine competition, the contest is processed through a contest-is-partnership metaphor. Consistent with the etymology of the word competition, such contesting is fundamentally about a mutual questing for excellence (Hyland, 1978). In contrast to the "striving with" that genuine competition entails, decompetition occurs when the contest is interpreted through a contest-is-war metaphor. In decompetition, striving with is replaced by striving against and the opponent is metaphorically rendered into an enemy.

Contesting theory builds on the cognitive linguistic theory of metaphor (Lakoff, 1993; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Central to cognitive linguistic theory is the distinction between conceptual metaphors and traditional or linguistic metaphors. Traditional metaphors, which are figures of speech or poetic expressions, are what most people think of when they hear the term metaphor. Conceptual metaphors, by contrast, are about modes of thinking rather than modes of expression. Typically residing outside conscious awareness, conceptual metaphors provide cognitive scaffolding that enables people to understand abstract concepts or experiences through cognitive mapping provided by the implicit metaphors. Although conventional metaphors are overtly present in oral or written expression, conceptual metaphors may generate linguistic metaphors without themselves ever being spoken or written. For example, a coach may say things like, "we need to grow up as a team," "this year our team matured," and "the team grew into its full stature." All of those expressions use linguistic metaphors. What is not spoken is the underlying conceptual metaphor, team-is-person, that enables the coach to think about the abstract idea of a team through the more concrete concept of person. Empirical evidence for the existence of conceptual metaphors comes from numerous convergent sources, including psycholinguistic research, historical research into semantic changes, spontaneous gesture studies, sign language metaphorical investigation, and discourse analysis (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). …

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