Unhealthy Competition / How we teach our kids a destructive view of competition

Julie Lyons
May 29, 2013
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It is the last stand in Siam. An army of metallic gold Napoleonic foot soldiers surrounds this space, one of the anachronistic place names in the classic board game Risk, and a lone red soldier stands in the way. He is about to get squashed by the invaders.
But before a roll of the black dice ends the game, a 7-year-old boy mounts a desperate counterattack. Pink filters into his cheeks. His face scrunches up.
He smacks his hand down onto the game board. Tiny soldiers and cannons skitter across the continents. “I always lose,” he pronounces. “I’ll never win. I don’t ever want to play this game again!”
A tear begins to form.
Mom is not moved. “Don’t be a sore loser,” she says, immediately landing on the words her mother spoke. “If you can’t play decently, we can’t play together.”
Inside her, though, another dialogue ensues: “Where in the world did this come from? Did I model these behaviors? Have I somehow taught my son to whine, to be a poor loser?”
The short answer is yes, say a number of influential educational and sport psychologists, as well as critics of Western culture. The way we frame contests and competition, they say, whether it be a Parker Brothers board game, a standardized test or a Little League game, fosters a range of destructive behaviors, from bad attitudes to aggression to outright cheating.  A little boy who throws his bat in disgust; a girl who takes her ball and goes home; and a kid who’d rather not try at all if he can’t be #1 illustrate what researchers have been saying for decades – competition brings out the worst in us.
And impressionable kids, thrust too early into a world that declares them winners or losers, grow into stressed-out adults – who burn through relationships, step on your back to get ahead and rip off customers, investors and each other.
“The biggest problem is that when you learn what’s good for you is inherently bad for others, you really create a negative cycle,” says David Light Shields, Ph.D., an educational psychologist and author of True Competition: A Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport and Society.  Shields and other researchers studied 803 athletes ages 9–15 and saw the results of a faulty concept of competition:
–Nearly one in 10 admitted cheating.
–13 percent had tried to hurt an opponent.
–13 percent had made fun of a less-skilled teammate.
–27 percent admitted behaving like “bad sports.”
And these are not just growing pains, Shields says. Since we view competition as war, with a victor and vanquished, superior and inferior, we actually sabotage the many benefits healthy competition can bring in childhood and beyond, teaching lessons of perseverance, fairness and hard work. Far from throwing out competition altogether, as not a few prominent voices have urged, Shields advises that we recast sports and competition as a quest for excellence, bonding and character. “Are we better off when we’re supporting each other,” Shields asks, “or are we better off when we’re at war with each other?”
It’s a question we need to ask as we push our kids to make the grade, valuing outcomes – wins and A’s – over the painstaking process of developing skills.
Wendy Middlemiss, Ph.D., a University of North Texas educational psychologist, brings it down to the level of the soccer field and second-grade classroom. “If we focus so much on who is going to win and lose,” she says, “we forget to have fun.”
And the truth is, somewhere on the march to Siam, my son stopped having fun.
I won, I won!
Now flash back to the age of 5. Long before my son has ventured into complex board games, he holds his toothbrush aloft like a sword. “I’ll beat you!” he tells Dad. A toothbrushing frenzy begins, with frothy paste dropping into sinks. In the end, everybody’s happy: The boy wins, the teeth get brushed.
Seemingly out of nowhere, our 5- and 6-year-olds manifest this sudden, competitive thing. And at first it’s harmless. “That’s about the time we start putting things into classes and start to notice differences with other people,” Middlemiss says. “We notice if somebody’s good at this or that.”
If a 3- or 4-year-old wants to be fast, he just imagines it. But kindergarteners and first-graders quickly figure out who’s fast, who’s smart, who’s strong and who’s not. “It’s a time when it’s very natural to start working toward dominance and hierarchies,” Middlemiss says. “That’s also where a lot of the push and shove comes from.”
The urge to compete is a natural developmental stage. But somewhere in the midst of this, our kids pick up subtle and not-so-subtle cues. They absorb a worldview that assigns greater value to winners, to who’s best. They see that we praise things they can’t even change – like their looks – and ooze compliments for inborn talents.
By this time, your kid might have had his first board-game snit. Shields, a professor at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, breaks it down: “For some kids, particularly if their parents have emphasized outcomes a lot, they very much tie their sense of self-worth and self-esteem to winning, coming out on top.”
And when our children turn on the TV, what gets celebrated? Winning. Outcomes. And a certain kind of winning at that. Mass media repackages competition and sport as spectacles of aggression, violence and win-at-all-costs. We hear about Bountygate and lying Lance Armstrong. We watch baseball’s steroid users, hockey’s enforcers and football’s showboaters. We quickly adopt the first principle of bad competition: Life is war, and you either win or get stomped.
It’s not about excellence, it’s not about the journey, it’s about this transitory emotion that goes along with winning. You got an A, you took the trophy, you did good.
Around the same time, kids start getting funneled into adult-organized sports. If you’re in your 40s or older, you probably didn’t experience this phenomenon growing up: You just grabbed a ball and a bunch of your buddies and set up a game of kickball in the park or on the street. The rules were flexible, sure, and initially you endured the humiliation of getting picked last, but the games had their own kind of justice. If one team dominated, you didn’t rejoice that you kicked butt. You picked new teams and played another, preferably more competitive round.
Along the way, you learned a little something about fairness, about problem-solving, about looking out for the more vulnerable kids – as well as the first rule of healthy competition: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
Forget about most of that today; rules and outcomes rule. “The whole name youth sports is really a misnomer,” Shields says. “We have adult sports played by youth. It has in some ways robbed kids of some developmental experiences that were incredibly valuable. Kids used to regulate their own games – and we’ve taken the decision-making and conflict resolution and put it into the hands of adults.”
Matt Johnson, Ph.D., a Fort Worth sport psychologist and former Notre Dame quarterback, has observed the same shift in kid sports and the inexorable push toward achievement at the tenderest ages. He offers his own critique: “Before 6 or 7 years old, kids don’t understand the concept of winning intellectually,” he says. “Instead, there should be a focus on teamwork, skill development and learning how to play. When winning becomes the driving force, that’s a problem.
“Focus on the process rather than the outcome.”
Personal best
Now suppress your urge to sneer. Life, after all, is not a big nursery school. Lou McIlhenney, a youth baseball coach and personal trainer with Physiofit Performance and Fitness in Carrollton, puts it like this: “If you don’t want kids to be winners and losers, don’t teach them how to count. Because if a kid can count, he knows who won or lost. Winning and losing is part of life.”
Shields agrees. But he envisions an alternative: An arena for competition that produces excellence – with wins being the natural byproduct. He cites the example of tennis great Chris Evert. Asked about her favorite match, Evert didn’t mention any of her three Wimbledon singles titles, seven French Open singles championships or six U.S. Open singles championships. Instead, she recalled a match she lost – to one of the greatest players of all time, Martina Navratilova. Why that particular contest? Because, Evert said, they pushed each other to the pinnacle of their game.
“True competition is all about seeking excellence,” Shields says on his website, truecompetition.org. “Winning is great when it happens, but the ultimate goal is to improve ourselves, to test the limits of our ability … competition is about partnering with opponents to seek excellence.”
Conceptualized correctly, Shields says, competition is a powerful vehicle for teaching a child to push his boundaries and explore new things; to be a good teammate, encouraging others to do their very best; and to set a high personal standard that serves as a motivator for one’s entire life, instead of continually seeking the cheap, momentary thrill and ego salve of proving another person inferior.
Childhood is a time when parents, teachers and coaches need to step in, he says, building a wholesome context for competition:
It’s fun to be best, but there’s always someone who’s better.
You win some, you lose some.
If you really want to be good at something, you’ll have to set goals and work hard.
You’re valued just as much whether you win or lose.
In everything you do, enjoy the journey. Have fun.
Kids under 10, Shields contends, don’t even need to be involved in winning-and-losing contests. “The idea for the younger kids is to teach the requisite skills,” says Shields, a former track and field athlete. “So by all means you can go out there and learn to have fun kicking the soccer ball, and you can do that in a very fun, cooperative way.”
McIlhenney sees things differently. “How do you know if you’re getting better if you’re not winning and losing?” he asks. But he, too, believes younger kids should focus on their skill set, not chalking up wins. McIlhenney, Shields, Middlemiss and Johnson, whose sport psychology clientele is 70 percent youths, offered practical pointers for fostering healthy competition, on the field and in school.
Encourage young kids to engage in cooperative play. In a game of ping-pong, kids can see how many times they’re able to volley the ball, Shields says. Numerous books, such as Terry Orlick’s Cooperative Games and Sports, offer ideas for cooperative play.
For kids younger than 10, emphasize skills. “There should be a focus on teamwork, skill development and learning how to play,” Johnson says.
Direct attention to the process. Much of the performance anxiety Johnson sees – whether in sport or business – originates in a “very strong outcome focus – it’s about winning.” An individual needs to win, or not strike out. “When the focus is solely on the outcome, the anxiety goes up – because you can’t control the outcome,” Johnson says. A kid might think, what is Dad going to say? Meanwhile, the ball whizzes by.
“You’re no longer in the moment, you’re outside the moment and judging it,” Johnson says. “Instead of ‘see the ball, hit the ball,’ you don’t want Dad to be upset. All those thoughts clog the mind.”
Praise the right things the right way. “There was a time when we thought praising children for just about anything was a good thing to do, because we were trying to build self-esteem,” Shields says. But more recent literature tells us there is as least as much danger in over-praising. Teachers, he points out, often laud children for mediocre work. “Kids get the idea that wow, everything I do is good, so I don’t really need to put in much effort.”
Instead, offer sparing praise for hard work and personal bests, Shields says.
Keep the focus on fun. “Sports should be about them having fun,” Johnson says. “Making friends, going to the pizza party after the game. ‘Hey, I caught a pop fly for the first time.’”
Avoid unnecessary comparisons. Instead of besting an opponent, encourage kids to set a standard of personal excellence. “A life without comparisons isn’t realistic,” Middlemiss observes. But instead of pointing out how one kid is more talented than another, recognize the value of others’ talents. “It’s providing a broader canvas to look at and live in.”
Harness a kid’s natural drive to compete. Kids with a strong drive will do anything to get better, even if they don’t possess exceptional natural gifts, McIlhenney says. A wise parent and coach will steer that competitive drive so it becomes a continual quest for improvement.
Don’t home in on one sport or interest. Johnson and McIlhenney have seen parents burn out kids – not to mention their pocketbooks – by focusing on one sport too early. “I believe every kid should be a three-sport athlete – fall, winter and spring,” McIlhenney says. “But there shouldn’t be an emphasis on one sport before high school. When you have exclusivity, you get burnout.”
A word to youth coaches: Keep it simple. Focus on the ball and maybe one fundamental, Johnson says, such as keeping your hands high on the bat. And if you miss, so what? “We often get too analytical,” he adds. “Coaches at every level make the mistake of loading the athlete with too much information. The mind-body process gets disrupted.”
A mindset of effort and excellence, nurtured throughout childhood, will prepare your kids for the stresses of competition when it really matters – in major exams, college and business.
Life without limits
I wish I could say my son took great strides in sportsmanship, becoming a gracious loser. But the truth is, he just started beating me at Risk. (He does attribute his mastery of geography to those early experiences with Risk’s Napoleonic-era world map.)
Now when my son, 13, sloughs off with B’s in subjects where he could do better (“The other kids did worse”) or backs off from a bigger, tougher opponent in soccer because he doesn’t think he can best him, I have to wonder about some of the tacit lessons we imparted. We sure dispensed a lot of wholly unnecessary comparisons – “Your drawing is way better than X’s.”
In open-ended pursuits, such as art, my son follows his passion as far as it will take him. He tinkers for hours with his creations, perfecting a new Renault tank or a 3-D WWI battle scene. No one is there to set boundaries or assign values to the infinite expanse of his imagination, and that is a good thing.
I suspect that Professor Shields is right, and our children were never meant to be boxed up and bound in this meager world of winners and losers, good grades and bad. Excellence is out there. It is always out there. And only hard work and passion will attain it.

Laboratory of Excellence

Two desks sit side-by-side in Lori Dortch’s immaculate Dallas home. Each is equipped with a pastel-colored MacBook and a neat basket of office utensils. Abby, 13, and Bella, 11, are crouched over their lessons; the only sound is a softly scraping pencil.
This is the Dortches’ incubator of excellence, an environment where her daughters can “strive to attain the level God has gifted them with.” The Dortches have homeschooled for years, using a variety of curricula – such as Stanford University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY), a computer-based, distance-learning course – as well as participating in a co-op for art and science instruction.
The Dortches’ philosophy of learning eschews competition. The girls’ work isn’t graded as such, but it is evaluated, Lori says. The girls cooperate in seeking their best; Abby encourages Bella to persevere in math, and the richness of Bella’s inner life prods Abby to pull from a deeper place when she writes. Last year Abby and Bella took the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, just to see “if they were in the running.” Lori admits she had “one of those mommy moments” before the standardized test, wondering how her girls would fare, but they both hit it out of the park.
Lori has heard all the knocks about homeschooling: What will her girls do when they’re dumped in a cutthroat real world? But last year, she got an object lesson in the effects of unhealthy competition. She had enrolled her girls in a Dallas magnet school whose few vacancies are highly sought after.
Abby, the more social of the girls, plunged into the novelty (for her) of traditional school. She quickly made friends and excelled in her subjects. Bella, a creatively gifted girl, didn’t adjust as easily, though she performed well academically.
The public school’s context for academic competition affected the girls differently. Abby wasn’t challenged in language arts and took no satisfaction in easy A’s. “Abby always wants to do her best,” Lori says. “Now they’ve given her a number that is her best.”
Abby was disappointed when she saw her school friends sit on their laurels when they got 100s. “It was disappointing to her that some of them would stop at 100,” Lori says. Even so, Abby found herself getting sucked into the game of comparing grades, which created anxiety in her. Bella, by contrast, hated that her work was nailed with a number. “I’m dying,” she’d tell her parents.
After a semester, both girls decided to leave the magnet school. They experienced “a sense of freedom and relief” when they returned to homeschooling.
Abby and Bella may eventually go to a three-day private high school. But Lori’s takeaway from the magnet-school experience is this: Competition – manifested in numerical values assigned to an individual’s work – actually hinders the quest for excellence. Excellence, she says, is open-ended; when a girl pursues her passion for learning, there are no limits.
Julie Lyons


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