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The Cost of Competition

Understanding How Competition Can Be Detrimental To Skill Development

The subject of competition is one that provokes some pretty strong feelings in the United States. In fact, even hinting that competition might not be such a great thing can cause one to be labeled un-American.

The prevailing belief is that competition is good for everyone – that someone without a strong competitive nature is just a wimp. That being competitive is human nature and to be noncompetitive is to have been born without a necessary gene.

But is it human nature, or is it learned behavior? The research shows that, given a choice, most preschoolers prefer cooperative to competitive activities. This would seem to indicate that dog-eat-dog is not a natural inclination. And in a New York Times essay, Nicholas Kristof told a hilarious story about trying to teach the game of musical chairs to a group of 5-year-old Japanese children, who kept politely stepping out of the way so others could sit in their chairs. This would certainly seem to indicate "dog-eat-dog" is taught in some societies and not taught in others.

In America we play musical chairs in childcare centers, during play dates and at almost every preschooler's birthday party. The rules say that a chair is removed with every round – and one more child gets to sit against the wall and watch everybody else continue to have fun. The game is over when there remains one winner – and lots of losers.

In case you don't recall from your own childhood (or maybe you were always the one winner among many losers), being eliminated feels lousy, as does feeling like a loser. And those other kids you're playing with? For the duration of the game they're not your friends – they're what's standing in your way. Children only have to play this game once to know that if they're not going to be labeled losers, they have to do whatever it takes to win. And we've all seen what that means: punching, poking, kicking, scratching, screaming and shoving. It's no wonder the research shows that competition fosters antisocial behaviors.

When parents consistently place their children in situations where winning is the ultimate goal – where the winners are considered heroes and the losers "losers" – winning is what they come to value. They learn that only the end result counts, not the process involved in getting there. Further, when parents themselves fail to conduct themselves with character, their actions speak much louder than any words preached about good sportsmanship and the value of teamwork and cooperation.

While the goal of many parents is to give their children a running start on the development of sports skills (because success in sports certainly must equal success in life!), the research shows that competition is actually detrimental to skill development. One reason is fear of failure and its resulting stress, which isn't conducive to either learning or performance. Young children in particular are susceptible to this problem because pleasing their parents means so much to them. And when their parents focus on winning – either through action (screaming on the sidelines) or words (asking "Who won?" instead of "Did you have fun?") – winning becomes the children's goal as well.

Of course, you may think the goal of winning would be enough to propel children into performing their best. But young children aren't cognitively ready to make that connection. They attribute winning or losing to ability, not effort. Nor are they emotionally ready to handle the pressure of playing mistake-free games. And they're not physically ready to play without making mistakes!

Finally, when product (winning) is emphasized over process (making an effort), extrinsic reward is granted more validity than intrinsic reward. As a result, trophies and championships become the whole point of participation. And while this may not seem like such a bad thing in a goal-oriented society, we're back to the issue of the young child's stage of development. Children under the age of 8 are motivated by pleasure. And, yes, winning feels good when everyone around you is making a big deal out of it. But does that feeling last? And what about the children who aren't winning?

Dare I say it? Winning isn't everything. And if we want our children to grow up to be self-assured, character-driven adults – who also happen to have positive feelings about physical activity – then it really shouldn't be.

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