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Posted on January 8th, 2018, 0 Comments

A Better Way to Think About Competition

Some experts argue that competition encourages excellence and builds character. Others claim that we’ve gotten too carried away with striving to be number one and that there is no such thing as healthy competition. So who’s right?

Researchers recently set out to answer that question. But after analyzing hundreds of studies on competition they concluded that there was no clear answer. Sometimes competing enhanced kids’ learning and performance, but just as often it did not. Digging deeper, however, researchers found that competing often beats working solo when kids get a chance to experience camaraderie and mastery as part of the process.

Many kids say they prefer to compete as part of a group (like on math teams and in chess clubs and science fairs) because they like being with their friends while learning. There’s still pressure – including the additional pressure of not wanting to let the team down. But the stress is buffered by the camaraderie of having teammates.

How kids think about the competitive process can also affect learning and performance. The best competitors view winning as succeeding at problem solving. And they don’t just compare themselves to others. They focus at least as much on learning something and beating their own personal best.

Try This
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you think about competition.

It’s okay if kids want to win. Most of us long to be the best at something. And it’s much more fun for them (and us) if they win. But it’s much more important that kids learn to work hard even when they compare themselves to the best around them and determine they’re not a star. This is essential for succeeding in a competitive world. We can encourage this by expanding our definition of what it means to succeed – so that the motive becomes not just to win but to learn or master something as well.

Kids don’t need to always win. If kids always win, even when they’re not turning up the effort, they’ll come to think that just showing up entitles them to a win.
Plus not winning can help give kids an accurate world view – letting them see that they’re not the best at everything and that losing is not the end of the world.

Kids do need to learn how to fail forward. To be successful over the long haul, kids have to be taught how to bounce back, reset goals, and keep on growing. We can encourage this by helping them see competition as a problem-solving task – with losing viewed as falling short of their goals, not falling short as a person.

Pressure should have an end point. Pressure itself is not a bad thing. In fact, the right amount of pressure can help kids focus on the task at hand. But endless pressure can be harmful. So there should be some ebb and flow in the pressure kids face, giving them time to rest and recuperate.

Encourage group and team activities. These emphasize cooperation and camaraderie that can teach kids how to work with and cheer for others.

Be aware of your messages. Our model is powerful. If we’re too quick to quit when things get tough or blame external forces when things don’t go as we hope, our kids will pick up on this regardless of what we say.

Bottom Line
We aren’t going to eliminate competition. If we did, we’d have to let everybody do whatever they want whenever they want to do it. And that can’t be done. But we can reframe the way we think about competition. After all, winning is exhilarating and motivating. And although it’s almost always more fun to win, losing can teach valuable lessons too.

Selected Sources and References:
Bronson, P., and A. Merryman. 2014. Top dog: the science of winning and losing. Hachette Book Group. New York.
Richtel, M. 2012. The competing views on competition in New York Times.
Rimm, S. 2010. Teaching healthy competition.

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