The Competition Lie



Last week I talked about the falsehood that has been used to push the elitist sports programs. “You can be anything you want.” Which any fool can tell you is complete balderdash, and telling average children this lie causes a lot more trouble than the benefit of the positive motivation it provides future elite athletes.

However, there is a more basic element to the argument, and this discussion is also plagued by politics and falsehoods.

Competition: How Much Is Too Much?

“All competition is good.” “All competition is bad.” How often have you heard this argument? And the problem is that the people doing the arguing are simplists. Extremists. The rest of us know that no element of human society is totally good or totally bad. But the people who argue for competition are, of course, the winners, and they pull a lot of weight. So they love the “All competition is bad” argument because it’s so patently false. And they keep the discussion on a black-vs-white level because it’s easy to win.

And this leaves the rest of us rather mixed up, and people who are uncertain are easy to persuade. The real lie involved here is that there are only two choices. Winners vs losers.

What Is the Objective”

So, let’s take a step back and see what we’re really arguing about. What do we really want?

Well, I think we want to create people who are motivated to try hard for whatever goal they choose. A secondary goal is that people learn to make good goal choices, as we mentioned last week.

And there are all sorts of ways of doing this. Competition is only one of them, and carries a huge downside. A complete lack of competition is an abrogation of our duty to train our children. Both approaches are flawed.

A Bad Approach (Which Happens Too Often)

If the teachers in a school decide that winning is everything, then that’s how the PE classes and the extracurricular teams will evolve. There will be poor participation. There will also be bullying in the classroom and on the playground. A few students will get good training. Once in a while, the school will turn out a championship team. But most of the students in the school will get poor training in sports and be poorly motivated towards athletics, and that failure will follow them and dog their health all their lives. And competition is a lazy method of assessment. You don’t have to set goals or criteria. You just hold a competition and rate the students on how they rank against the others.

A Worse Approach

Medals for participation are a limited technique used by lazy adults who can’t be bothered to teach kids how to set goals and achieve them. And at their worst, they give some of the students the idea that they deserve praise for doing very little. Hence the development of undue entitlement so many people complain about. The problem is that this is the only alternative approach to competition that we are offered.

There’s nothing wrong with recognition of participation. I have a couple of souvenirs of high-level sailing races I participated in. My boat never came close to winning, but just participating was a great accomplishment. I set myself the goal of participating, and I achieved that goal, I deserve the recognition and I know what it is worth. And so does the rest of the sailing community. Objective attained.

What Are the Alternatives?

The problem with the “competition” approach is that it presupposes winning as the only reward worth achieving. This is not true, and as I noted last week, it has a detrimental effect on the majority of children. The solution is to allow individuals to set achievable goals, determine what success will be, and assess and reward on that basis. Personal improvement is one of the best goals, but not the only one.

A Motivational Example

One of my most successful lessons in Grade 6 PE was a basketball game where every member of the team had to touch the ball before a goal was scored. That was it. All the same rules, otherwise. The best players could score all they wanted, but they had to make sure that the weaker players handled the ball once every score. The weaker players benefited, because they had a share in the game. And the stronger players benefited because they started to realize that those other people on the court with them could be useful. They changed the style of their game. They learned cooperation and sportsmanship. They learned to be leaders, not selfish hotshots. They learned how to get in the clear to receive a pass. The defenders learned how to defend against passing. Everybody benefited, and everybody had fun.

Oh, yes, the only other rule. A game was one basket long. In other words, nobody kept score. The objective wasn’t to beat other people. It was to develop your own team to the best they could be. Your opponents were there to give you resistance to train against.

And how did the students get good marks? Well, by improving their skills. If your foul shot rate was 49% when you started, good for you. For an Elementary student, that’s great. But if it was still 49% at the end of the unit, don’t expect an A. Sure, you’re lucky enough to have some skills, but you didn’t learn anything in the unit. A student with a 10% average who improved it to 20% would get a similar mark. Progress was the objective, and it was assessed, not by achievement relative to others, but relative to your previous level.

The Bottom Line

So, when you’re dealing with your children, it’s simple; don’t say, “Well done, you did better than your brother.” Say, “Well done, you did better than last week.” Your kids will be happier, they’ll enjoy the game more, they’ll try harder, and they’ll get along with each other better.

And there’s a real win-win situation.


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