Competition Conundrum

“We try to emphasize safety and fun at Laney, even in competitive games and sports Although I’ve read some passionate arguments opposed to any form of competition, campers seem to enjoy our version of winning and losing. Is ’healthy competition’ an oxymoron?”

–Rob Hammond, director of Camp Laney in Mentone, Ala.

As a psychologist who works with summer camps across the country, I am often asked whether competition is good or bad. Proponents of competition speak fondly of their athletic victories and about wanting the same thing for campers. Competition, they say, builds character. It’s a competitive world out there, so we had better prepare our children. Critics of competition want every child to always feel like a winner. They don’t want to pit one child or one group against another, nor do they want external rewards–such as grades or trophies–to motivate participation.

No camp director, teacher, coach or parent wants the type of competition that makes children unduly anxious, that interferes with their performance and creativity, or that makes them uninterested. However, to eliminate competition at the same time erases opportunities to learn humility and grace.

Spoiling The Sport

Unhealthy competition is certainly prevalent. For example, parents living vicariously through their children while simultaneously screaming obscenities at referees and deriding opposing team members sets a poor example. Coaches who lack the skills to teach and encourage their charges turn children’s desire to win into bloodlust. And teachers who tell their students that one person’s success must come at the expense of his or her classmates strike a sour note on the purpose of competition. Alas, research on the negative aspects of unhealthy competition is mostly solid, but using it as a rationale for eliminating competition altogether “may throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Although some believe that “healthy competition” is actually a contradiction, I have a different perspective. The unhealthy competition I’ve witnessed is:

· Ubiquitous

· Focused exclusively on rewards or punishments

· Belligerent

· Rude

· Critical

· Unfair

A classic example is the child who, after a day at school where grades are the only object, is forced to play in a youth soccer league where parents emphasize trophies, coaches berate kids, spectators scold every mistake, one team has vastly greater talent than the others, and not every child gets to play.

A Cooperative Effort

Life doesn’t have to be that way. What I’ve seen that is healthy I call “cooperative competition.” This may seem like a contradiction in terms, but when competition creates only a little anxiety, demands fair play, and emphasizes safety and fun, children’s performances can be enhanced, and they learn to make moral decisions independent of adult caregivers. Cooperative competition emphasizes:

· Praising effort, not outcomes. Although vapid praise is useless, pointing out incremental accomplishments builds self-esteem. The baseball coach who tells a player, “You swung hard and made contact,” is doing a better job than the coach who simply says, “Nice swing,” and a far better job than the coach who screams, “Come on! Park that thing! You swing like a baby!”

· Focusing on strengths. Instead of comparing a player to his teammates, such as “Why can’t you kick the ball like Robbie?,” focus on strengths. The coach who tells his player, “You’re passing well. Let’s try that corner kick again,” is capitalizing on what’s intrinsically rewarding to a child by focusing on his or her strengths.

· Having fun, but not at the expense of others. The joy of any game should not be in the winning or losing, and certainly not in harming others, but in playing the game and cultivating relationships. Cooperative competition emphasizes cheers, not jeers–and handshakes, not prizes.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page

Related posts:

  1. Healthy Competition Is Not An Oxymoron
  2. Cooperation and Competition: Evil Twins
  3. The Beauties Of Camp Duties
  4. A Healthy Lead
  5. Staying Relevant
  • Columns & Features
  • Departments
  • Writers