Competitive dynamics research has focused on studying whether rivals are able and likely to carry out competitive actions, typically by examining indirect reasons such as characteristics of the actions themselves, the firms involved, or the competitive context. We explore why rivals initiate a specific competitive action at a particular time and situation. Drawing from the philosophy of action literature, we introduce the concept of competitive rationales to examine the primary reasons that cause tactical actions. Given the rapid exchanges characterizing tactical competitive dynamics, we conducted an inductive, multicase study to explore the reasons behind over 800 discrete tactical decisions carried out by 9 professional basketball coaches during 15 basketball games. To garner insight, we develop a conceptual framework revealing their types and scope. Even during intense head-to-head rivalry, most rationales were not rivalrous but were instead organizational—to optimize resource use, strategic consistency, and reputation—or social—to manage relationships. Moreover, the three main types of rationales varied in scope, extending beyond immediate competitive situations and rivals to address longer term, strategic outcomes, and assorted stakeholders. Thus, our analysis reveals these rationales to be complex and potentially difficult for rivals to decipher. It also recasts each component of the dominant awareness-motivation-capability (AMC) model of rivalry, suggesting that awareness is challenged by subtle rationales, motivation drives not only action but also forbearance, and capability is both a requirement and product of action.

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Published in Journal of Management.

© The Author(s) 2021

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).

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This study was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada and the Basketball Federation of Macedonia.