The Case Against Competition

How We Lose the Race to Win

"Under our present system we generally find that when children first come to school they are more prepared for competition than for co-operation: and the training in competition continues throughout their schooldays. This is a disaster for the child: and it is hardly less of a disaster if he goes ahead and strains to beat the other children than if he falls behind and gives up the struggle. In both cases he will be primarily interested in himself. It will not be his aim to contribute and help, but to secure what he can for himself. . . ."

--Alfred Adler, psychologist (1868-1937)


Recently, my younger son and I were watching one of those popular "family" sports movies. The plot was predictable: a group of kids who are very poor athletes join together under the leadership of a reluctant adult. Ultimately, they all learn to care deeply for each other and, of course, win the championship. I was struck once again with the constant, powerful messages popular culture offers us about winning and losing. In one of the film's flashbacks, the main adult character recalls a moment from childhood that shaped his life. As part of a peewee hockey team, he is chosen to take a penalty shot on goal. If he makes it, his team wins the championship. His coach emphasizes winning as the only acceptable goal for the team and offers these words of inspiration: "It's not worth playing if you don't win." This brief scene highlights the film's focus on how destructive and debilitating that attitude was for this young man's life. At times, the story line offers a variety of alternative attitudes: "do your best," "have fun," "try hard."

At the end of the film, this same young man is coaching his own peewee team against his old coach's team. He wants desperately to prove that the advice he was given about winning was inappropriate. Sadly, the way he does this is by putting another child in exactly the same position. The peewee hockey player has to go out on that ice, compete one-on-one with a stronger opponent, and try his best to make the goal. As the show concludes, the high drama of that moment results in the goal being made. The triumphant young player glides down the ice pumping his arm in the all-too-familiar body language of victory. The evil old coach is left sad, defeated, and alone on the sidelines.

So, despite all rhetoric to the contrary, the ultimate message of this--and most--family entertainment is . . . it's always better to win! We live in a society that places a high value on competing and ultimately winning. If we do not share this value, we face a struggle to find inspiration for our children (and ourselves) to act in cooperative rather than competitive ways.

Myriad studies by a variety of anthropologists and other researchers demonstrate how children and adults from various cultures often choose cooperation over competition. In contrast, children and adults raised in the United States usually choose competition. One of the greatest students of world culture, Margaret Mead, in her 1937 classic Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples, concludes: " . . . competitive and cooperative behavior on the part of individual members of a society is fundamentally conditioned by the total emphasis of that society." People who favor competition often insist that it is a natural, inbred response to most human interaction. Mead and many others disagree.

Educational psychologist Alfie Kohn explores these cultural contradictions in one of his early books, No Contest (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986). Kohn builds upon the basic idea that there are three ways of achieving one's goals: competitively (working against others); cooperatively (working with others); and independently (working without regard to others). Clearly, the United States has championed competition as the most effective--indeed, the most "natural"--way to succeed. "That most of us consistently fail to consider alternatives to competition is a testament to the effectiveness of our socialization," claims Kohn, who asserts that the urge to compete is cultural, and carefully refutes the notion of psychological and biological foundations for competition.

The work of many academics and scientists supports Kohn's thesis, and can help all of us understand that a shift from competition to other approaches is possible, but not without adjusting our basic understanding of the world to see the coexistent possibilities. This vision provides a key element in helping our children understand the pitfalls of competition. Most current popular culture offers very few alternatives to competition. Scholarly books on the topic bolster our understanding of the benefits of a cooperative mentality, and provide a scientific foundation for the case against competition: the lives of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela are replete with compelling examples of successful nonviolent responses to aggression, which at the minimum provide food for thought about whether competition is part of nature or nurture. But despite historical anecdotes--powerful as they are--most parents require examples of cooperation that are realistic and applicable to daily life.

Stories are powerful tools for providing alternatives to competition. In his study of world myths and legends, the late Dr. Joseph Campbell determined that there are perhaps seven or eight major themes in most of the world's folk tales, legends, and stories. Sadly, many of those themes focus on competition. A few, however, suggest cooperation as the means to a successful conclusion. Unsurprisingly, studies of cultural myths suggest that societies focused mostly on their cooperative mythology are much more peaceful overall.

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