You know that girl you love to hate at spin class/boxing/CrossFit because she absolutely crushes the workout, without a producing even a bead of sweat? And next to her, you feel like a useless, soggy towel? Well, science has figured out why you might feel that way.
A new study by the University of Oxford found that the way you judge your own performance is seriously impacted by the performance of those around you. (
The researchers had 24 people play games (assessing the colors of shapes and estimating an amount of time elapsed) in both a competitive and team setting. They were told that two other players were completing the same task at the same time. After each trial, the players were given feedback on their own score and the score of the other two mystery players, then were asked to rate the expected performance for themselves and for the other players for the next trial.
People’s ratings depended on whether they felt like they were competing or working as part of a team. In cooperative situations, people based their own evaluation on how well their teammates did. So if the other players scored higher, the player evaluated their own ability as higher. But if the other players scored lower, they perceived their own ability as worse as well. Imagine: you’re in spin class, and the instructor wants the class to hit a certain RPM average as a group. If the group doesn’t reach the RPM because of a bunch of slackers in the back, you may still think of your own cycling ability as sub-par, even if you were personally kicking ass. But when it was a competitive situation (every man/woman for themselves), the players evaluated themselves more negatively when interacting with high performers compared to low performers. Basically, why running sprints next to the fastest girl in bootcamp class can make you feel kinda crappy. (P.S. did you know that more people compete in yoga than in CrossFit? Talk about a way to kill the zen.)
This goes beyond #gymtimidation too; the researchers found that their results match well with what people experience at work. “They might feel better or worse about themselves depending on how well the group they are working with is doing, or they might feel worse about themselves when facing a strong competitor,” says study author Marco Wittmann in the press release.
So next time you're feeling discouraged next to a bunch of pros, remember that it's totally normal. And if you really want to harness the feel-good benefits of exercise, try joining a team sport!