Asking for a friend: Help! I love the sport I play, but my friend is way better than I am – what do I do?

  • Each week, we respond to a question from our readers, and our team of clinical psychologists give advice and resources you can turn to.
  • When your friend is a better athlete and they have access to more opportunities than you do, it is fair to feel upset – and we’ve got some tips on what you can do
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Have you ever found yourself in a rivalry with your friend?

Need an answer to a personal question that you’ve never mustered the courage to ask? We’ve been there. Whether it is about school, family issues or social life, share your thoughts with us.

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Dear Friend
I play a sport, and I love it – it is more than just a hobby to me. My best friend plays the same sport, and it’s usually something we bond over. But she’s a lot better than me, and I’ve been in her shadow ever since I started the sport.

She also has access to more opportunities than I do, and I don’t think she understands how hard I have to work to keep up with her. Our head coach lives near her, so she always gets extra training sessions. She has so many more chances to improve because her parents are available to drive her around – mine aren’t.

I am sick of being second best at something I really care about, and I’m afraid that she thinks I don’t take this seriously. Whenever I try to talk to her about it, she doesn’t really listen. How do I make her aware that not everyone is as privileged and talented as she is?
Best, The Exasperated Understudy

Competition can be a great part of playing sports, as long as your perspective is healthy

Dear Exasperated Understudy
It sounds like you put a lot of effort into training despite having more difficulties than your friends do. But you feel angry that your friend does not listen when you try to talk about it. There are two aspects of this issue to consider: how you view yourself and what to say to your friend.

It is hard to fully enjoy a sport when you feel like you’re living in the shadow of your best friend. While playing sports can be an excellent way to make long-lasting friendships, it is important to maintain a healthy perspective.

It is perfectly normal to feel a little uncomfortable from time to time if your friend is better than you in a sport. Even in daily life, people compare their abilities, physical attributes and accomplishments with others’.

How do I tell my friend that I don’t like her gift?

Social comparison can come in two forms. Upwards comparisons are when we measure ourselves against people we see as better than us at something. Downwards comparisons are when we do this with people we see as worse than us. Engaging in either of these comparisons can affect our self-esteem.

On the one hand, downwards comparisons can help us remember how hard we have worked to get to where we are. But of course, don’t be rude or hurtful in how you see other people who are not yet at your level.

On the other hand, upwards comparisons can motivate us to work harder to improve. After all, sportsmanship is about being able to appreciate another athlete’s skill and effort. If your friend is better than you, try to feel genuinely happy for her and congratulate her.

With upwards comparisons, watch out for unhealthy thoughts that degrade your self-worth. Your worth as a person should never be defined by how your abilities compare to what someone else can do.

What to do when you’re jealous of a friend

Being second-best is not something to be ashamed of. It only means that you have someone next to you who can give you advice and motivate you to improve. In fact, many top athletes are lifelong rivals who are also best friends.

One example is the friendship between Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim, who shared the gold medal for the men’s high jump at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Their relationship began at the World Junior Championships in 2010, where Barshim won the title and Tamberi did not even qualify for the event.

Later, when Tamberi was injured and struggling emotionally, it was Barshim who came to his help. The two continued working hard, and their decision to split the gold medal has been described as “the best display of sportsmanship”.

Now, in regards to how you can get your friend to understand your situation, it might be worth finding a time to sit down and share about how she has not been listening to you. It seems like you are quite upset about the situation, so you need to be thoughtful about what you will say.

Think about what it is that she can do to be a better friend. Do you just want her to be a better listener when you’re feeling upset about the imbalance in your skills and opportunities? Would you want her to see if her parents can drive you to additional practice sessions? Or do you want her to share some of the tips she’s picked up from her extra training?

Knowing how you want to be supported is crucial for any relationship. Make sure you communicate that clearly with her, and focus on developing a healthy competitive mindset.

Hope this helps, Friend of a Friend

The question was answered by clinical psychologists from the Department of Health under Shall We Talk, a mental health initiative launched with the Advisory Committee on Mental Health.

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