As a teenager, I read The Inner Game of Tennis, in which author Timothy Gallwey presented a cogent argument in favor of competition in sports. As I recall all these many years later, Mr. Gallwey explained that competition can help all parties develop to their highest potential. We hear a lot about “healthy competition” in our society. We are frequently reminded that competition in industry drives innovation. Life itself is said to be based on a system of competition that fuels evolution. There is truth in all of these assertions about competition. However, I am here to present a contrary view. Against the backdrop of near-universal acceptance and celebration of competition, I will share my deep concerns about all forms of competition.
My first year as an assistant teacher in a Kindergarten, first and second grade classroom, I remember watching two young children play a board game. Because I cared equally for both children, I wanted both of them to feel the joy of winning and avoid the sting of losing. My anxiety grew as I watched them play, knowing that one of them would very soon be sad. I wondered why my observer’s point of view couldn’t be shared by the participants in the game. Could they, for a moment, forget that they each resided in separate bodies, and view themselves as one being, celebrating any outcome of the game? It seemed to me that their separateness was an illusion; after all, I could easily empathize with either one of them. Why couldn’t they do the same? While we are participating in a competition, can we step outside of ourselves and lose any stake in one body winning at the expense of another?
As a school teacher, I see only harm in competition. When I was in a school that awarded a “student of the month” prize, each month the same tragedy played out. No matter how hard I tried to prepare the students for the prospect that someone other than themselves would win, the ones who didn’t win were devastated. They were only about nine years old, but as we grow older and learn to mask our disappointment, those feelings of bitterness and unfairness, and resigning to being a “loser” remain.
The goals of the board game the two young children participated in were to have fun along with learning something about numbers. The goals of “student of the month” were to recognize achievement and give students an incentive to do better. I believe that all of these goals can more humanely be met without competition. I have seen students laugh and learn while playing cooperative games in the classroom, instead of what we called “winning games,” as well as playing games outside in the playground without teams. And, while I have never seen any evidence that young children will improve their behavior in the moment because they want to win “student of the month” in the future, I have seen the powerful effect of acknowledging specific accomplishments as they occur.
Tonight, I’m going off to watch my 12-year-old son play soccer. Of course, I want his team to win. But they are playing the children of other parents, who also want their kids to win. Why should my son experience the thrill of winning but not another parent’s child? It seems to me that the only way you can root for a team is to dehumanize the other team, just a little bit. After all, if you have as much empathy for the other team then you can’t really cheer against them. Whenever you think of your team as “us” and their team as “them” and you want “us” to beat “them”, you have to think of “them” as a little less worthy, a little less human. This is more apparent as the regions represented by the teams grow bigger. In a school game, the parents might politely clap for the other parents’ children. In a college game, not so much. And in regional professional games, or international competition, the spectators can turn ugly, even physically attacking each other. All of this is despite the fact that where we happen to be – the body we inhabit, the town, religion, country – is all arbitrary. We could just have easily been born into a body on the other side of the bleachers, rooting for the other team. In fact, in the United States we move around so much from city to city and state to state that it seems strange to hold on to team allegiances at all.
I believe that the mentality necessary to want your team to beat the other team is the same mentality needed to engage in war. To want to defeat others, some degree of dehumanizing is required. In war, it is much more obvious: we have terrible names we call our opponents, we pretend that they don’t share our values, and that their lives are not worth as much as ours. I see competitive sports as training for war-thinking. In fact, we hear generals and politicians commonly using metaphors they learned from sports to describe warfare.
Politicians of all stripes fall over each other in praise of the ability of their country’s workers. They warn against losing competition with other countries. Growing up the United States, it would be natural to assume that there is something intrinsically better about Americans. After all, we constantly hear about how resilient we are as a people, about our “can do” spirit, about “American know how,” about how we have the best fighting force in the world. One would think there was something genetically superior about the people who happen to find themselves living as (legal) residents of the United States. To come out on top, to be “number one,” we encourage industrial competition. It’s axiomatic that a competitive marketplace will spur innovation. I think that competition does give companies the incentive to make new products. But the things they are compelled to make do not necessarily reflect what people need. Rather, they reflect what businesses think they can get people to buy. The joy of creating more and more wonderful things that contribute to the betterment of life is a strong motivator as well. If we replaced economic competition with a system that allowed people to use their talents to contribute freely to the world, we may have fewer devices that beat eggs while still in their shells, or toys based on games which are themselves based on cartoons in which the toys are promoted. However, we might have more interesting music, and machines that aren’t designed to be replaced every few years.
Finally, we are told that competition is in our nature. It would be silly to resist one’s nature. But let’s take a look at nature: it is a complex system of cooperation between members of a species and across species. Competition exists, but not the sort of competition of a sports game. No species (other than humans) is trying to defeat another species, since all species rely on each other to keep the precious system in balance.
This brings me back to my first observation of the kindergarten children playing a board game. We are individuals, but we are also part of an complete whole. None of us live completely apart from others. Not only are we part of an organized society, but human beings are part of the web of life on this planet. I believe that we need to get more in touch with the imperative of cooperation for survival. Competition is ultimately destructive. In industry, it leads to unnecessary production, waste and pollution. In sports, it leads to an “us” vs. “them” mentality that prepares people for the thinking required for war. And war itself, the ultimate form of human competition, leaves death, destruction, and potentially the end of all life in its wake.
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