By Karen Coffin
Competition is a good thing. It’s about finding out how well you can do something under pressure. It’s about challenging yourself to get better. It can be about working together with others to accomplish a goal. You compete to succeed; to be the best you can be. Yes, it is also about winning. Actually, it’s about wanting to win, working to win and preparing to win.
We can have competition with ourselves (often our toughest opponent). We can compete with another person, team, business or country. Competition is the same in a job as it is in sports. It’s the same in a class play as it is giving a band performance. To have a good outcome, a person has to focus on and commit to doing the work needed to improve. Doing one’s best when something is really important is a challenge everyone should attempt.
As a coach, I wanted players who were good competitors. If they were good athletes, it was a bonus. A really gifted athlete can be a challenge to motivate. If success comes too easily, there is no reason to work very hard. Then, when facing a tough opponent, he or she may lack the determination to battle, and will give up emotionally. Having to work hard in practice will carry over to a game. Overcoming problems in preparation teaches a player to handle adversity later.
Competition has a bad reputation, however. Even in a Thesaurus, other words for “competitive” are “bloodthirsty” and “cutthroat.” That’s about as negative and unattractive as it can get. When did wanting to win become a bad thing? When did losing become unforgiveable?
It became ugly when it became so important to win that our culture embraced a “win-at-all-costs” philosophy. Kids and coaches are under so much pressure to win today, that the fun has gone out of playing sports for many. We have wide-spread cheating, inflated egos, bad sportsmanship, personal attacks and player burn out.
Media coverage has become pretty rough. Talk shows and the Internet give fans a chance to complain to a big audience. Players get raked over the coals for mistakes and coaches get second guessed for every play that doesn’t work. It takes a thick skin to be in athletics at the pro and Division I levels these days. The pressure is to do anything to win.
What makes me truly upset is that this tendency is filtering down to youth sports. We are losing a lot of really good people every year – both officials and coaches – who work with kids in a positive way. We are also seeing a great many kids drop out of sports by the time they enter high school. Actually, that trend has now moved to before middle school.
The reasons are usually about not having any fun and the sport taking too much time. Those two reasons can be traced directly to how much pressure the athletes and coaches feel. The officials are leaving due to abusive crowd behavior. We have lost all perspective about what is important for children, and we are teaching some really negative things about playing sports.
What can we, as concerned adults, do to counteract the negative aspects of competition? Primarily, we must teach our kids that being a real winner involves more than just the score. It depends on how one treats other people along the way. It depends on how hard they worked. Did they respect the officials? Did they follow the rules; written and unwritten? Were they honest? Were they gracious to those who didn’t win? Did they acknowledge the people who helped them?
We must separate the act of competing from the result of the competition. Will we be proud of them if they compete well but don’t win? Yes. Will we love them just as much? Yes. Can we keep the scoreboard from determining pride or love? If the answers are all, “Yes,” we will raise competitive winners.
About the Author:
Karen Coffin is a retired coach and a member of the Port Clinton (Ohio) High School Athletic Hall of Fame. She’s a writer and a facilitator for Ohio Coaching Education classes. Contact her at coachcoffin @cros.net.