Competition is an element that is vital to success because it sets a minimum standard that must be met. Every human being has in them a driving force that pushes them to be better than the person standing next to them, and though it may have been stamped out by their bland 'boy in the bubble' upbringing, it can still surface to be the most motivating factor in any grand plan. In the aftermath of the 'trophy' generation where every kid is commended for showing up, getting trainees to understand what losing feels like (bad) and how to overcome it (work harder) is more important than ever before.
Let's talk about what competition does.
It raises your standard of what 'good' is.
Being the big guy at the local fitness club feels good, but it just makes you a moderately sized fish in a very, very small pond. Complacency is the enemy of progress, and nothing makes you more complacent than sitting at the top(even if you just think you are at the top). The tendency trainees have to make themselves seem more impressive by limiting the talent pool that they measure themselves against is a phenomenon I see everywhere, and it is really Goddamn annoying.
This niching down occurs when people throw more and more qualifiers on themselves to give them a perceived disadvantage, making their shitty performance near world-class by comparison. You know what I'm talking about. Someone sees you squatting big at the gym and approaches you for 'advice', which is really just an opportunity for them to tell you their numbers that you didn't ask for. "That's pretty good bro. I squat 315, but I only weigh 162. That's good, right?" Weight, age, height, and disability are all used to make subpar feats of strength feel like world records.
"I mean, that's pretty good for a 19 year old 162 pounder with Chrone's disease and scoliosis." Yes. You are the best 19 year old 162 pounder with Chrone's disease and scoliosis in the world.
People who compete shed this mentality really fast. And they are better, mentally and physically, for it.
Side note: This is also why I think weight classes should be abolished in fighting and lifting. Have a LW and HW bracket if you must, but stop making all of these uber-lightweights feel like they’re King Kong. McGregor and Mayweather both lose to mediocre heavyweights, and being the strongest 132 pound lifter in the world still isn't very strong. Give one trophy to the most weight lifted and one trophy by coefficient. Done.
It exposes you to people who are better than you.
Again, living in a small pond is going to expose you to the same small people. Despite societies best efforts to stamp out the competitive fire by not keeping score during games and giving every kid a participation medal (I got one when I was 6 and it felt silly then), being directly submitted by someone superior to you is the best method for motivating you to getting your shit together. Loss is a pain that stays with you, right in your stomach and the back of your throat, like when you were dumped by your first girlfriend (you now, the one you really loved) so she could go to prom with your best friend. That sting is what keeps you on task and pushing as you think about ways to do it better next time. It persuades you to get up at 4am and train before work and it drowns out the fire in your muscle belly on that 15th rep of a 20 rep squat marathon. If you are looking for ways to kick start your training, losing in front of a lot of other people is a rude awakening that changes your priorities really fast.
It exposes you to new ways of training.
This is one of the most valuable assets of competing, right behind motivation. The things I have learned over the years that give me the sense that I know what I'm talking about are largely taken from conversations had with top level competitors over the years. People who are at the top are not just the genetically gifted juice monkeys that less successful people would have you believe. They all train incredibly hard and incredibly smart. The principles that can take someone to the WSM or World Weightlifting Championships are the same ones that can take you past your stagnant 300lb bench press.
One example I have is when I drove from San Bernardino, CA to Boise, ID by myself for a turnaround competition in February of 2012. You see, there was a sponsorship on the line and I had talked myself into believing that I had a shot at it. I kissed my wife good bye and drove 10 hours to compete before turning right back around and coming home. I bombed a few events, made a strategic error or two, and finished mid pack. Despite the anger I had in spending all of that time and money to go the middle of BFE to put up such a shitty performance, I got to see Will Dinwiddie smoke the LW division and learned a great deal from how he trained.
Will deadlifted weighed in around 225 that day, and with no belt, straps, or hitch, deadlifted 425 for 28 reps.... in one goddam minute! He's strong and athletic because he does crazy shit that no one would give a second thought to. For years I drank the kool-aid that anything that was not a 3 rep max or lower was not optimal, even detrimental, to strength gains. No conditioning, no real rep work. I got strong pretty quick, as long as strength meant 20 seconds of work or less. I also got really fat. Watching Will opened my eyes to a new way of training that wasn't so limited in scope. In that time, I have incorporated 20-30 rep work sets with squats, presses, and deadlifts. I work conditioning medleys more often. I give a shit about my work capacity. More than a few PR's are a result of that one trip to Idaho.
It gives direction to your training.
When you compete, you have to produce results. There is no skipping workouts or changing programs. You decide you want to get better at something and work until that goal has been achieved. This is a huge cure for training ADD, something that plagues trainees all over the world. It never fails; as soon as someone starts making significant progress, they self sabotage by arbitrarily change the goals they set out to accomplish in the beginning. Like stopping your cut to bulk, or ditching push jerks for strict presses 20lbs off of that lifetime goal. Strongmen have this problem in spades because competition encompasses such a wide range of physical attributes.
Do this: pick a contest a few months out. Reverse engineer a program that would have you peak for that contest. Follow it as if you were going to enter it and smash on it, focusing on nothing else. Now, with the improvement of all of your lifts in respect to that event, are you better overall? Of course you are. And if you aren't it's because you stopped 6 weeks early.
It cures burnout.
Training without purpose sucks. I see it in the faces of the middle aged gym monkeys that have been toiling in 24 hour fitness for 30 years with nothing to show for it. They have forgotten what progress looks like and at some point accepted that it will never come again. Instead of getting furious and going diesel, they gave in to complacency. Staving off burnout is important in every aspect of life, not just the gym, and it begins with setting a really far out goal and convincing yourself that you can reach it. I mean way out there.
When I was 16 I told my girlfriend at the time that I wanted to be the strongest man who ever lived. She laughed. Fuck her. But I have never gotten burnt out because I know my work is never done. I have a goal and I want it. I don't care how stupid it is; the focus on that singular absurd goal is, above and beyond, the one factor responsible for any progress I have made to date. Don't set a goal and then write a list of things you don't want or are not willing to do. Think for a second what being the best in the world would be like. Take the governor off. Be unreasonable. It pays off.
It validates the countless wasted hours in the gym by yourself.
I started competing for myself, but found that I now have credibility that I never had before. Who would you rather listen to: the academic with the degree in Exercise Science or the person who has proven his methods in the field by placing in dozens of contests? I now own a gym where I get to be around people who share my passion all day, and my only in was the fact that I had a competitive track record and more years behind the wheel than anyone in the area. No level 1 cert. No BS Kinesiology degree(ech). Just good old fashioned real world experience.