Friday, July 8, 2011

It's not about the winning

My four-year old daughter Kayley and I went for a visit with her great-grandmother Betty.

Kayley was quick to say, "Gramma, I have soccer tonight."

"Oh, really. Do you run around and try to win?" Grandma asked.

Kayley paused and half-rolled her eyes, "oh Grandma, it's not about winning... it's about having fun."

Grandma and I looked at each other and grinned. I was a little surprised to hear this from my four-year old, while Grandma turned to Kayley and said, "that's quite profound, Kayley. How right you are."


The truth is that much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the motivational effects of competition prove to be mythological. If you are like me and you enjoy a good competitive game this might be a tough pill to swallow. After all, it's not easy to challenge some of the foundations of our reality.

A familiar challenge to rethinking the conventional wisdom surrounding competition goes something like this:

In the real world there's lots of competition, and because kids live in the real world, they need to be prepared to be competitive.
I agree that there's plenty of competition in the real world, and I'm even willing to admit that children should be literate in the art and science of competition. But let's be clear, even if a good case can be made for learning about the effects and consequences of competition, that is not the same as immersing them in it.


  1. I'm not particularly competitive on the sports field, but that's mainly because I'm so bad at sport I can't afford to be. (Being bad at sport makes you great friends with the other people who are bad at sport, though.)

    Academics, however, is a different story. I did well at school, and was often given extension work. One day, in Year 3, we were playing a game involving multiplication tables. Since I was good at the game, the teacher told me to double my answer to make it harder for me. On one round, I failed, and upon returning to my seat, my classmates said, "I thought you were so smart." Throughout primary school, we often had to play several academic games- mainly for maths and French, but on the rare occasion for other subjects too. I feared these, because I worried that if I didn't win then everyone would be asking why not. This fear permeated into other academic work as well, and it's lasted for far too long without being conquered.

    I fear competition, but unfortunately I have become a very competitive person. I must get at least 90%, and if I can't have that, then I must be #1. (Unfortunately, I can also be very lazy, so there's this awkward situation in which a lazy person wonders why they didn't get #1 when they didn't study. But that's another story.) I sometimes fear what I will do if I fail to reach my own high expectations. Society creates its own monsters sometimes, and I believe I am one of them.

  2. From Lori Gotlieb's article ' How to get your kid into therapy ' see Alfie Kohn's critique
    it seems that both the pro- competition and anti- competiton have got it wrong. The anti- competiton group give every kid a trophy , we are all winners - the pro-competition group sees competition as an opportunity for a kid to deal with frustration , failure and handle it.
    They both don't understand that competition undermines intrinsic motivation and enjoying the game , plus promoting a lot of negative character - cheating , seeing others as obstacles to your success. Self esteem is undermined both by winning and loosing - kids leasrn that their self esteem is dependent on how they do in competiton , contingent on something externnal


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