The Competition Rant

In one of my previous blogs, I wrote about the place of winning in youth soccer. I asked what purpose winning serves in the development of youth sport participants. I have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water here. I haven’t suggested getting rid of competition altogether in youth sport, just the emphasis on winning. Of course the two seem to come along together and so I believe it becomes difficult for the everyday individual to keep them separate. If you compete, you compete to win, even when we give the standard answer to a child, “Just do your best” which often serves to mask our true intentions. Deep down in the most altruistic of altruistic souls I believe lies the ugly truth — we want to win and we don’t like to lose. This is what competition does to us. Competition turns us against each other. Competition tells us that I can only succeed by first making you fail.

So before we go any further, a couple of disclaimers. First, like the title says, this is a rant. You can take it or leave it because of that. Second, I hate losing. Those that know me well know that I’m one of the most competitive people around.

However, having said that and as an example of the internal battle with competition and winning that I’ve faced over the years, I was running a soccer camp a number of years ago for 10–12 year-olds. At the end of each camp day, we played some small-sided games and called it the Mini-World Cup. There were four teams and each was quite a mixture of ages and abilities. The team that won the Mini-World Cup had the oldest and strongest player. The two players he had with him were at the opposite end of the spectrum. They had won very little of anything all week (or for that matter anywhere else I’d have to surmise) so that was nice to see. Another team — in fact the team that finished in last place — played the best soccer though. I was so impressed by their spatial awareness and willingness to work together. The team that won the competition was a contrast in cooperation. The very best player tried his best to work together with his two hapless teammates. However, when things got tough (say they got down a goal) he’d take the ball and basically do it by himself. He’d turn it up a notch and score almost at will.

And the scary thing is that his teammates seemed to be okay with that. They’d cheer and celebrate when he scored even though they did very little to contribute (and sometimes they made it harder for him, getting in his way). The most interesting thing from this event I think is what happened as we wrapped up the tournament. I made it a point to acknowledge the team that performed well but did not win. I started by saying a congratulations to the team that won the most games. I then said a ‘however’ and that the team that won the Mini-World Cup for me had been the other team that had performed well. I’d made some comparisons to say what this team had done particularly well so that they could see the difference between performing well and winning.

The campers sort of looked skyward (like I use to do in math class when the teacher asked me to solve a problem I had no clue how to solve but hoped to find the answer in the ceiling tiles) and nodded with expressions that seemed to say, “Yeah I guess I can see that but you’re in charge so whatever…” As I finished my spiel, one of the weaker players from the winning team said, “Yeah but we still officially won, right?” I said yes, you ‘officially’ won and he shuffled off contented and happy.

What purpose does competition serve our youth? Because it’s fun? Because we went through it so our kids should? Because ome day our kids will need to face it in their everyday adult lives so we should put them in it now?

The more I work with kids and the more I collect stories like the one above, the more I think that author Alfie Kohn is on to something when he says that we lose in our race to win. That poor kid who asked me the question about being the “official“ winner lacked even an ounce of athletic ability.

He had trouble running. He had no coordination. He had little, if any, self-esteem. He gave up most times in the camp before he even gave himself a chance. Why? He’d look around and see the other kids accomplishing the tasks and he’d say things like it’s too hard, or impossible or he’d never be able to do it. He’d just listen to what would need to be done and then, based on previous experience, decide he wasn’t going to be able to do it and give up.

The kid I described above is the one who is lucky enough to have a parent(s) that hopes that by putting him in enough of these soccer camps and other training opportunities, he’ll improve and thereby enhance his self-esteem. I bet for every one like him that is involved in youth sport there are many more sitting at home doing nothing and feeling terrible about themselves.

Even though that one really good camper did his very best to be inclusive and cooperate with his teammates, he still did it all himself when the result was in question. There were campers on other teams that tried to do it all themselves too. And they failed at trying to do it yet every time they got the ball their solution would still be to try and do it all themselves.

In his books Punished by Rewards and the Case Against Competition, Alfie Kohn argues very effectively that cooperation IS better than competition at promoting learning. If that IS the case, then I want to know why did the best player at that camp still decide to do it all on his own? Or why did others still keep trying to do it all on their own even though they failed each time they did it? And why during the week when that one athletically challenged kid was struggling and saying he couldn’t do activities did the other campers not come to his rescue and offer to help him learn the skill? Why did he have to continue to learn on his own with only my help?

As I said, this was a rant. Something that comes from being unhappy with what I’ve seen over three plus decades of coaching. I certainly didn’t promise answers. I don’t have them anyways. In fact, I’m asking you. How do we keep winning in perspective? How do we show that we value learning to cooperate and work together more than we value learning to compete against each other? I’ve been trying to figure out answers to those questions for years. Unsuccessfully I might add. Maybe you have some suggestions. If so, I’d love to hear them.

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