Print and Go Back Rise [Print without images]

Monday, April 20, 2009
Updated: May 13, 12:50 PM ET
Nothing breaks up these friends turned rivals

By Alyssa Roenigk
ESPN RISE Magazine

At the 2008 Winter X Games, snowboarder Ellery Hollingsworth stood at the top of the halfpipe during the women's superpipe finals and cheered for her friend Lizzy Beerman.

Even as a fierce competitor, Lizzy Beerman has been friends with Hollingsworth since the sixth grade.

It was both girls' first time competing at Winter X, their sport's most prestigious event, but only Beerman qualified for the finals. Despite her disappointment, Hollingsworth wanted to support her close friend. So she stood, shivering and screaming, as Lizzy dropped into the Aspen, Colo., halfpipe and eventually finished sixth overall.

At this year's X Games, their roles reversed as Hollingsworth advanced to the finals and Beerman supported her friend from the sidelines. "She stood at the top of the pipe with me," Hollingsworth says. "We have a good support system."

Now seniors at Stratton Mountain School (Stratton, Vt.), Hollingsworth and Beerman have been friends since sixth grade. Despite opposing each other often over the years, they have developed a close bond.

Hollingsworth admits competing against a close friend like Beerman makes losing more difficult and winning more complicated. Still, the two snowboarders serve as proof that it's possible to balance close friendships with fierce athletic competition.

Balancing Act

5 Tips for competing against friends.

1. Communicate. Before a game, talk to your friend about your intentions -- what you expect from her and what she should expect from you. Make sure she understands that what happens on the field stays on the field.
2. Set boundaries. While you are competing, you are strangers. This is not the time to talk about weekend plans. Save the personal conversations for after the game.
3. Play your best. It benefits neither of you to play below your skill level because you want to go easy on your friend or spare her feelings.
4. Be sensitive. If she won, congratulate her. If you won, offer her kind words and allow her time to be alone, if necessary.
5. Move on. Put the competition aside as quickly as possible and get back to being friends. Don't let too much time pass without re-opening the lines of communication.

Sometimes -- in the case of these two -- competing against a friend even elevates your game. "We both wanted to be pro snowboarders and we realized our rivalry helped push us toward that goal," Hollingsworth says.

Like other elite athletes across the country, Hollingsworth and Beerman have learned the key to balancing friendship with competition is drawing clear boundary lines.

"This is really tough for a lot of girls," says Dr. Beth Howlett, a certified sports psychologist who works with elite high school and college athletes. "They let their feelings get in the way and they have a hard time separating their emotions. They often worry about the effect what happens in competition will have on their relationships."

Like with any good relationship, communication is the key to successfully competing against friends. "If you communicate before a contest and say to your friend, 'Let's go out there, play our hardest and may the best man win,' then there are no hard feelings," Howlett says.

Before each meet, Central Cambria (Ebensburg, Pa.) track/cross country runners Kendall and Kelsey Seymour hug, wish one another good luck and then head to opposite ends of the track to warm up. That sets a clear boundary between their relationship as friends/sisters and competitors.

"We are competing for the same thing and we can't let a sister or a friend get in the way," Kendall says. "A true friend understands."

After contests, it's important for the winning competitor to be respectful of the other person's feelings. Sometimes that means complimenting a specific aspect of her game. Other times, it means backing off and giving her time to process the loss.

It's equally important for the losing party to be supportive of her friend's success, though she should also be clear about how she's feeling as long as she doesn't deliberately sabotage her friend's good mood.

At the start of her freshman year at Harriton (Rosemont, Pa.), now-sophomore Jennie Shulkin challenged her friend, then-junior Casey Robinson, to a match that would determine who'd play No. 1 singles that season. Robinson had played in the No. 2 position the year before and expected to be No. 1.

Ellery Hillingsworth
Ellery Hollingsworth will be gunning for Olympic gold next year.

The freshman won. Robinson asked for a rematch, but Shulkin won again.

"Casey was upset because she expected she would be number one, and I respected that," says Shulkin, who gave Robinson distance after the match.

By competing against friends numerous times throughout the years, Shulkin has learned it's best to visualize the person across the net as just another girl in a rival uniform. That approach helped Shulkin finish third at state last year before missing her sophomore season due to shoulder surgery.

Shulkin's approach is a great way to separate friendship from competition. But it works only if you're clear that once the match starts your friend is just another opponent you'll play at the top of your game in order to beat.

It doesn't do anybody good if friendship impacts one's performance, especially if it means playing below your ability to spare your friend's feelings.

"It's hard to not think about how they are feeling or that I care about them, but I have to focus and do what I need to do to win," Shulkin says. "But after a match, if I win I'll say a few kind words or give her a hug. I have to be more tender with a friend and also respect that she may not want to talk to me right away."

Surfer Malia Manuel, a sophomore at Kapa'a (Kapa'a, Hawaii), has competed against friends for years. Manuel and Leila Hurst -- now a sophomore at Kula (Kilauea, Hawaii) -- met in kindergarten but now live on opposite sides of the Hawaiian island of Kuai. They look forward to contests so they can catch up and see how the other's skills have progressed.

Once an event begins, Manuel and Hurst don't take it easy on each other. But at the same time they're cognizant that the heat of competition doesn't mean there's an excuse to be a bad friend.

"Leila is a really aggressive contest surfer, so I have to stay super alert," Manuel says. "During a contest heat, we don't talk to each other and we try to watch each other's rides while still looking for waves of our own.

"I like competing against my friends because we don't use any of the mean tactics some of the girls have been taught," she adds. "I've had a lot of mean things happen to me in the water and used to get hurt by it, but that's how you know if someone is a true friend. They know friendship is more important than burning you in a contest."

This balancing act is even more difficult when your friend is also your sister.

That's the case with the Seymour sisters. Kendall is a sophomore at Central Cambria while Kelsey is a junior. Their older sister, Carly, graduated last year and now runs cross country at Duke.

The Seymour sisters have spent years balancing their home life with their friendship while remaining some of the most competitive runners in Pennsylvania. Carly may have gone off to college, but the sibling rivalry between Kendall and Kelsey remains strong.

"We're best friends," Kelsey says. "We do everything together. Running has brought us closer, but it's hard sometimes. Everyone compares us to one another and when one of us has a bad day we come home to the same house."

The flip side is that after a bad day, they have their best friend at home to cheer them up. "Kelsey and I run similar races," Kendall says. "Our times are real close and she pushes me through the races."

At last year's state finals, Kendall fell at the start of her race and eventually finished 72nd individually -- nearly 60 places behind her sister, who finished 15th. Devastated at the thought that she cost her team the state title, Kendall went for a cool-down run to prolong the moment when she would have to face her teammates.

Turns out Central Cambria still scraped by and captured the team title despite Kendall's fall. And guess who was the first to tell her the good news, just moments after the two finished battling for individual supremacy.

"My sister ran to find me and told me we'd won," Kendall says. "She said that if I hadn't gotten back up and finished the race, we would have lost. She knew I was upset and came searching for me so I would have something positive to focus on. That's what friendship is about."

Of course, celebrating together is the cure-all for competing against friends.

During the next year, the friendship of Hollingsworth and Beerman will face the ultimate test as they take aim at qualifying for the 2010 Winter Olympics. In an ideal world, they'd both make the Olympic team. But if they don't, history tells us they'll be supportive of one another, no matter what.

"The toughest thing about competing against Lizzy is when one of us is on the bubble," Hollingsworth says. "It's bittersweet to know I have a chance to make the finals but I will have to knock her out to do it. It's so much better to celebrate together."

Alyssa Roenigk covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.