What Has Happened to “Healthy Competition”?

Fall is here, and in my family that also means it’s college football season. (My dad was recently featured in USA Weekend magazine as one of the “Top 10 Crazy fans”) I happen to follow a highly competitive, winning team. As I sat and watched them play football this past weekend, I got to thinking about a topic I have been wanting to blog about for awhile. Millions of people watch college and professional sports rooting for their favorite team to win, yet they do not think it’s okay in their own lives (and especially their children’s life) if there is a winner or loser. What gives?

When I was growing up, we were allowed to be competitive. I did not play a lot of sports as a kid, but I do remember playing soccer as a kindergartner. Not only did I have no choice but to play on a boys team, they kept score. I honestly couldn’t tell you if my team was good or not. Someone won each week, but it had no lasting impact on me. I competed in other areas during my childhood. I spent many years competing in horse shows. I won occasionally, got beaten by good friends at times, and sometimes I even finished last. I am not scarred. I competed in essay contests. I won some amazing prizes through the years (Most notably my crazy fan dad got to throw out the first pitch at an MLB game for a Father’s Day essay I wrote!), but I “lost” more times than I won. The concept of winning and losing helped me to learn to set goals for myself — I entered photography in the County Fair as a young teen. I did so-so my first year, and made it my goal to “beat” out the reigning “Teen Grand Champion Photographer” the following year. (I met my goal.)


So what is my point here? It concerns me to see children that are not only not encouraged to compete, but cannot handle it. (As a side note, I am not proclaiming myself as a child expert here. I do not have children, but have over 200 children of all ages pass through the doors of my business on a weekly basis and I make a lot of observations along the way.) While this reaches far beyond sports (See this story here for an example ), sports are a classic example. I think there some can be some great lessons for young children to be rewarded for participation (teamwork being the main one), but at what point does this cross the line? At what age should the score be kept and rules be followed? Everyone’s answer would probably vary, but I would argue that it goes on far too long in most kids’ lives. (I talked to a few older children who told me that this transition seems to happen between third and fifth grades.) This attitude of “everybody wins” is being carried over into other aspects of life and affecting normal social interaction. Earlier this year I was playing board games with a group of elementary-aged children. One of the older children commented to me that the only game she liked was Jenga because in her house “No one wins or loses. You all play together and when the tower falls you all lose together.” Say what?! Sadly, the other children were not very keen on playing with her because she could not handle that games have rules (and you win some and you lose some). I fear this child will struggle greatly to not only excel in school, but to hold a job down the line with this set of beliefs.

I recently talked to a young adult that told me she lived through this shift in her school. When she was in elementary school she would compete each year in the “field day” events and try to win (with extra motivation coming from beating the boys!). At some point in her school career, they stopped having winners and losers. She explained to me that she had very little motivation to even try when that switched. Youth competition, in my opinion, serves as a training ground for life. Have you ever attempted something as an adult and failed absolutely miserably? (I know I have!) What if you hadn’t developed those “coping skills” from “losing” as a child? The fact that it is possible, and likely, that you will fail and then later move on to succeed is a lesson we all need. Similarly, when parents and coaches adapt rules to sports, what lesson does this teach? There are very few occasions in the “real world” that we get to make up a set of rules. Another example of this I observed recently was a mom at a mini golf place explaining to her children that even though her older son had a better score, the little sister had also “won.” Neither child was particularly young. They reminded me of myself and my older brother growing up. When your brother is four years older than you, you never win. But I learned to accept that as part of life. In fact, my “big brother” is still beating me at races to this day. I am okay with that!

I am not sure where my personal competitive spirit came from, but I know it’s there and it is more often a good thing than bad. I fully agree with the sentiment of trying to better myself as an athlete as opposed to competing with those around me. But I’m not going to lie — “healthy competition” pushes me on a regular basis. Having people that are “better” at something around me drives me to work toward being my best. a few weeks I forced myself out of my “safety corner” treadmill at boot camp and made myself run next to my friend, Mary. This may sound like no big deal, except that she is fast. (Like, she could probably run faster than me if she were going backwards fast!) I hadn’t run next to her, very intentionally, since before my foot went under the knife. Was I as fast as her? NO. But guess what? That healthy competition of someone faster than me pushed me to one of my best runs in recent memory. I feel like I reached my best that day by being a little bit competitive with others.


In talking to some parents before writing this, several cited examples of their kids earning participation awards that quickly ended up dumped in a corner somewhere. They mentioned that from a very young age when the child had earned the award it held a much higher value to them. They somehow “get” it, no matter how much the adults are trying to prevent this. I think the concept of winning and losing also leads to a good work ethic. If everything is “equal” from sports to academics, what motivation is there to work hard? I was the type of student who got very good grades but had to work for them. They did not come easily to me. If I could have done less work to receive exactly the same result, would I have done it? I really don’t know the answer to that, but I would definitely say that I do not think I would have developed the “drive” that it took to get my own business off the ground as an adult. Without some measure of competitive drive, what is the future of our work force? As a business owner, I have worked with a decent number of young employees. Many of them have had an attitude that “just showing up” is enough to get their paycheck every two weeks. The “drive” is completely missing from their lives, despite the fact that many of them are overall “good kids.” (I love my current staff, so if any of you happen to read this, I am not referring to you! :)) How will this generation ever rise to the top, be promoted or become entrepreneurs when their goal is to get by on mediocrity?


So what do YOU think? Is this paradigm shift to “no winning” a good thing or not? What do YOU think is an appropriate age for kids to start “losing”? Did winning and/or losing as a child have an impact on the adult you have become?




6 thoughts on “What Has Happened to “Healthy Competition”?

  1. I was having a similar conversation w/some friends over the weekend. We have all this violence now in the schools involving the kids. It makes me wonder if the fact they aren’t learning how to deal w/disappointment, learning how to handle losing, stress is some how causing this. Sheesh, our schools aren’t even putting much value on homework anymore or barely counting it in their grades. We’re going to send our kids out into the world with adults that did learn to be competitive & they’ll have no tools!

  2. I couldn’t agree more! I don’t have kids but my husband coached junior wrestling and I never realized the thing about the participation awards until I sat through the banquet where each kid got called up for their trophy. I was just like “what?” Then I found out a friend’s kid’s baseball team didn’t keep score. I just don’t get it! I agree, maybe when they are *very* young, it is okay to forego certain things but once they are old enough, it is time to learn to push yourself to be better and you learn that by winning and losing at things.

    On a side note, my husband’s current sports team just voted to move down a division because they weren’t winning enough. Suddenly all these players who quit years ago (because it was too hard and they were losing) showed up because they might win again. Maybe this is an example of what will happen in the future if we keep this up? My hubs likes competition and is not happy about moving down but it was a team vote! He agrees with you – surround yourself with those better than you and you will get better yourself!

  3. As an educator, I see first hand the detrimental effect of coddling children to “everyone’s a winner” This is a ludacrous idea, because this is unrealistic! In real life, there are winners and losers and this is just a fact of life!

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