The Case Against Competition

How We Lose the Race to Win

Even people who really enjoy the excitement of two teams meeting on the sporting field understand almost instinctively the value of collaboration. A few years ago, I was asked to offer a conflict-resolution training program for Cambodian teens at a summer camp. When I arrived, I was shown to the cabin where I would be meeting with the group. As I was setting up, I heard the sounds of cheering outside and went to investigate. I walked down the hill toward a ball field and saw every single teenager in that camp involved either in playing or watching a very serious game of soccer. This was not just a pickup game. The players had uniforms and the spectators were definitely on opposite "sides." One of the teens told me the game had just started. It was almost time for my training session to start, but I assumed it would be postponed. When I mentioned this to one of the camp staff, he made it clear this would not be the case: he proceeded to walk into the middle of the soccer field, blew his whistle and told everyone it was time to meet with me in the cabin up the hill.

Quite a few of the spectators ran off in the opposite direction, but the staff member did a good job of herding most of them up the hill. As they walked into the room where I was waiting for them, I was sure no good would come from this session. One of the young men made a point to bring his chair up to the front of the room, slam it to the floor right in front of me, then turn it around and sit down, arms folded, with his back to me. The laughter this produced eased the tension a little, but did not change the mood of the group significantly. I tried to introduce my subject in a variety of ways, but it became very clear that all they were interested in was soccer. So we talked about soccer; about playing soccer; about watching soccer games; about the game they were just playing. Of course, they talked a great deal about competition; but mostly they talked about the fact that they just loved to play. Finally I put a question to them: "What was the best game you ever played?" They all agreed it was one fantastic game, the year before, in which the final score was a tie. They loved that game because everyone had a chance to play their best and no one had to lose.

According to Born Chea, Youth Program Coordinator for the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota, this approach to competition is one that Cambodian young people (and their parents) are learning. While there is no singular cultural response to competition, many Cambodian youth would define winning as personally overpowering someone else. "What we try to teach these kids," Chea says, "is that competition is best when you are working on individual discipline, personal or family values, and achieving goals." Generally, he continues, "families encourage their kids not to win, but to do their best. This kind of encouragement helps strengthen personal behavior and support family values." Cambodian culture is traditionally very authoritarian, so any disputes are resolved by whoever is in charge. This might include a parent, a law-enforcement officer, or a court. In this country, Cambodians are often more likely to choose mediation over more legalistic methods of problem solving. Born Chea cites several possible reasons for this: "Some people are realizing that mediation is less expensive than going to court; that they can have more control over the outcome in mediation; and they have a better chance the end result will be win/win."

Even the most stalwart fan will agree that a game between unevenly matched teams holds very little appeal. Take a look at the stands of any NFL or NBA game that is approaching the end with a lopsided score. Most fans will leave, no longer interested in the competition. Even when the teams are adequately matched, the excitement lies in the possibility of either team winning. It's the play that most of us truly love, whether we are watching or participating. Perhaps as a society we forget our love of play because we focus too much on victory. As Kohn writes in No Contest:

"To the proponent of competition who insists that differences in ability will always exist, then, we may reply that it is the significance invested in these differences and not the differences themselves that constitutes competition. The ability to observe discrepant abilities without turning the situation into a contest is a learned disposition. The degree of an individual's competitiveness can be expressed as a function of how frequently this happens and how strongly one feels the need to be better. But there is not a shred of evidence that this inclination is an unavoidable feature of human life."

Games prove especially useful in helping students understand the difference between competition and cooperation, and the relative value of each. One game, called "Kisses," always disturbs younger students, but definitely piques the interests of older ones. The "Kiss" referred to in this game is made out of Hershey's chocolate, and it is offered as a reward for playing the game successfully. Condensed instructions for the game are essentially as follows: "The object of the game is to win. Form pairs and sit across from each other. Each of you put your right elbow on the table and clasp your hands together." At this point, of course, almost everyone in the room looks and acts as if they are ready to "arm wrestle." The instructions, however, go on: "All you have to do is take this position with your partner. Every time the back of someone's hand touches the tabletop, score one point. For every point, you will earn one chocolate kiss."

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