Virtue and Competition: Getting it Right

Sabrina Little’s thoughts on virtue in running competition.

By on June 28, 2023 | Comments

There was a hill outside the cafeteria of my high school. Reportedly, seniors used to sled down it on their lunch trays in the winter before there were rules against such things. But I did not know the hill as a location for diversion. I knew it as the steepest incline available on our high school’s campus, where our cross-country team sometimes ran repeats, ascending and descending above the practice football field.

There were other hills that our team ran repeats on. There was a tiny bump of a hill above the softball and field hockey area. There was a grassy incline that rose sharply above the student parking lots. And there was a formidable driveway that ascended from the road to our school entrance, past the soccer fields. The driveway was steep enough that, one day when a classmate rode his tractor to school, the tractor stalled out and blocked traffic for an hour, delaying the start of the school day.

These hills were a testing grounds for our resolve and tools for our edification. And while we ascended them in the hours following the formal school day, we received an education on these hills. The hills never changed, but as the season progressed, we changed, becoming people more capable of ascending them.

Sabrina Little running in nature

Sabrina Little honing her craft on a training run. Photo: Sabrina Little

Character and Running

Over the past few years, I have written in this column about how running can be used as a laboratory for virtue. Sure, we can build fitness in our sneakers. But we can also practice patience, perseverance, and courage. We can refine our habits of attention, grow more accountable, develop practical wisdom, and become supportive teammates who celebrate the successes of others.

Moreover, I have argued that running is not just an opportunity to grow in virtue; it is an imperative. Vices such as dishonesty undermine the terms of success in the sport. Envy erodes relationships. Impatience and irresolution are performance impediments. And vices such as intemperance and pride are at odds with a happy life. We can ignore conversations about character, but we do so to our own peril because virtues and vices play a significant role in sport and in life.

Even so, not all attempts to use athletics for character development are equally well-considered. Sometimes these conversations and initiatives fail. So, it is worth addressing the ways in which engaging running with virtue can go awry. Here are three:

1. The Mistake: Thinking Virtue is at Odds with Competition

Sometimes when I tell people I am interested in virtue and running, they take this to mean that I desire a world of sport devoid of all competitive energy. Just be nice! Don’t compete! They assume that humility is at odds with striving, and that competition and good character are incompatible objectives.

Why This is a Mistake

Considering the word “virtue” means “excellence,” it would be odd if having a good character meant a lack of aspiration. It doesn’t. In fact, there is a virtue called magnanimity that is concerned with greatness. The magnanimous runner “deems himself worthy of great things and is worthy of them (1).” He knows his relative value as an agent, is aware of his capacity for doing great things, and does those great things (2).

So, no, virtue is not at odds with striving. And it is not at odds with competition — or “striving together (3)” — either.

That said, there some ways we compete that are at odds with virtue. One is when we compete from envy — “feeling bitter when others have it better (4),” and are undone by the successes of others. Another is when we cheat and undermine the competition itself. We should avoid these things. But is competing well at odds with having a good character? Definitely not. Keep aspiring greatly. It brings out the best in all of us.

Anne-Lise Rousset and Ruth Croft - 2023 Maxi-Race 43k top two

Anne-Lise Rousset (left) and Ruth Croft (right) share a hug, after battling it out to finish first and second respectively in the 2023 MaXi Race 43k. Photo: David Gonthier

2. The Mistake: Virtue-Signaling Without the Virtue

Virtue-signaling is speaking as though you align with a set of values that, in practice, you do not actually concern yourself with. Often, we do this for social clout, or self-promotion (5). An example is pretending that you care about the environment — something popularly valued in the distance running community — when this is reflected very little in your daily actions.

Why This is a Mistake

In the same way that talking about vegetables does not make you healthier — you must eat them, unfortunately! — talking about virtue does not make a positive difference in your life, or in anyone else’s life for that matter.

But it is worse than that. There is a way in which virtue-signaling facilitates self-deception (6). When we hide behind empty moral talk, we may begin to think of ourselves in terms of virtues we do not possess. This positions us poorly to improve because we already think we are great.

So, don’t just talk about good deeds. Do them. That’s what counts.

Two runners holding bags of trash.

Virtue in action! Members of Rocky Mountain Runners on the group’s annual Earth Day trail clean-up. Photo courtesy of Maggie Perkoff.

3. The Mistake: Moralizing Success and Failure

We may be inclined to attribute our successes to virtue and our failures to vice.

For example, you praise an athlete for winning, attributing his success to his hard work or fortitude. A second example is that a friend has a bad day and drops out of an ultra, and you assume she did so from apathy, irresolution, or sloth.

Why This is a Mistake

Running is not a meritocracy.

When I coached, some of the hardest working athletes on my team were bad at running, and many of the most talented performers had ample room for character growth.

While it is true that many virtues are conducive to success in running (e.g. patience, perseverance), speed is not a proxy for determining the quality of someone’s character. In fact, many vices (e.g. envy, greed) support good performances, too.

Sometimes, we do indeed fail due to personal shortcomings. But there are many other reasons we fail that have nothing to do with our character. Sometimes the weather is bad. Sometimes our bodies let us down. And sometimes bad performances are just part of the process because development is non-linear.

This is an especially important reminder when coaching or parenting young female athletes, who often experience predictable declines in performance at some point in their teens (7). If we moralize success, the implicature is that struggling athletes are not trying hard enough — that they lack the excellences of those whose performances exceed their own. This is often not the case.

My recommendation is to detach virtue from outcomes. Praise virtue when you see it, regardless of whether it accompanies success or failure in the sport.

Final Thoughts

Distance running provides both an opportunity and an imperative to care about character. Its value in forming character is unsurprising considering its daily difficulty — of long runs, hard efforts, and (as I described above) hill repeats on hills of various lengths and steepness. Even so, not all attempts to use running for virtue development are equally constructive. Here we considered three ways in which engaging running with virtue can go awry.

Call for Comments

  • Have you found a way for competition and virtue to operate in harmony in your running?
  • Do you agree with the author’s critiques on virtue signaling without virtue and moralizing success and failure?


  1. (2011) Nicomachean Ethics. Transl. R. Bartlett & S. Collins. Chicago University Press, 1123a35.
  2. A. Boyd. (2014) “Pride and Humility.” In Virtues and Their Vices. Ed. by K. Timpe & C.A. Boyd. Oxford University Press, 248.
  3. competere. (2011) American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.
  4. DeYoung, R.K. (2009). Glittering Vices. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, p. 41.
  5. See Tosi, Justin, and Brandon Warmke (2020). Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Tosi, Justin, and Brandon Warmke (2020). Grandstanding, pp. 105-112.
  7. T. Sims (2018). Effects of puberty on sports performance. Journal of Physical Education New Zealand 51(2): 37.
Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is a monthly columnist for iRunFar. Sabrina has been writing at the intersection of virtue, character, and sport for the past several years. She has her doctorate in Philosophy from Baylor University and works as an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Sabrina is a trail and ultrarunner for HOKA and DryMax. She is a 5-time U.S. champion and World silver medalist. She’s previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200k disciplines.