On Competition

Amy L. MarxkorsNote: Last week’s column served as quite a springboard for conversation. We received some great feedback and many prompts for further discussion. I thought it was worth following the topical inspiration for one more week!

“Because when no one can lose, nobody wins.”

Thus ended my last column. Shall we consider this a continuation, same bat-time, same bat-channel?

To defend losing is to defend a much larger concept. It is to defend that which pushes us to be better. It is to defend the desire to excel, to achieve, to reach for something beyond ourselves. It is to defend that which drives us higher. And faster. And stronger. It is to defend the very thing that gives us the opportunity to lose, the opportunity to win, and the opportunity to respond with grace either way.

To defend losing is to defend competition.

I will forever praise sports as an incredible resource to grow character and teach key life skills, but the virtue of sports is contingent on competition. Far from being its own entity, true sportsmanship cannot exist independently from competition. Grace requires conflict. As C.S. Lewis said, “Everyone feels benevolent if nothing seems to be annoying him at that moment.” We cannot teach a solution by erasing the equation. We cannot teach kids how to respond to winning and losing by eliminating those very things.

Kids are smart. They are perceptive. By stripping them of the opportunity to win and lose—by robbing them of the chance to compete—we are doing them a great disservice. Yes, kids should be kids. Yes, sports should be fun. Yes, kids will grow up soon enough and be faced with real-world competition. But that’s the point. Sports are a relatively controlled and safe environment in which we can teach young kids a right and healthy view of winning and losing before they are inundated with the many distorted notions of the world and the pro-athlete-of-the-day.

We must teach kids that winning is exciting and remarkable but—despite what NIKE says—it isn’t everything. We must teach them that winning should never trump integrity. We must teach them that how they conduct themselves after they win is just as important as getting to the podium in the first place. When they lose, we must teach them defeat is not final. We must teach them to have resolve and perseverance. We must teach them to try again—to be better and stronger and wiser the next time around. We must teach them that while losing is disappointing, it is a necessary step on the way to success. We must teach them that winning and losing does not define who they are.

To teach them anything else is not preparation, but deception.

Competition gives kids the responsibility and credit they deserve. As adults, we may be well intentioned in our desire to protect kids from the proverbial “agony of defeat,” but in our concern we are inflicting more damage than good. Just as we cannot build ourselves up by tearing others down, we cannot build confidence by compromising the standard. When we sacrifice competition on the altar of self-esteem, the opposite effect takes place.

Winning and losing does not divide kids into groups of “winners” and “losers.” To categorize someone as a “loser” because of an outcome in a sporting event is erroneous. Who is to say that because a boy loses in a footrace that he loses at everything else? What if the footrace is the only thing he loses at? What if he excels in science? At writing? On the football field? On the tennis courts? Who is to say that the girl who loses in a sprint isn’t a champion mathematician or dancer or equestrian or ice hockey player? And if a child does lose, who is to say he can’t improve and succeed despite the obstacles that are hindering him now? Who is to say that because a child struggles today, she won’t be the one leading the pack tomorrow? Furthermore, who is to say that the child who won the footrace doesn’t finish last in everything else? What happens to his confidence when his one victory doesn’t count for anything?

Handouts are based on specious assumptions, and rather than feeding a child’s self-esteem, they devalue his or her accomplishments in other areas. Handouts don’t build a child’s confidence, but reveal a reverse discrimination, trivializing a child’s strength of character and exposing our lack of faith in his or her ability to overcome.

Competition is a celebration of diversity, highlighting our various strengths and weaknesses and showcasing the manifold talents encompassed by a community. Competition teaches kids to rejoice with those who win and encourage those who don’t. Competition teaches us to persevere. Competition protects against entitlement, teaching kids the necessity of hard work and the value of achievement, whether it comes in the form of a participant’s medal, a finisher’s medal, or a winner’s medal. Competition teaches the difference between the three. Competition keeps us from complacency, pushing us ever forward. Competition drives the standard ever higher. Competition gives us the opportunity to win. Competition gives us the opportunity to lose. It builds us up. It keeps us humble. It makes us better. Competition is what makes sports, sports.

Long live competition.

Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious RunnerHer second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Storywill be released in 2014.

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