Against Competition

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.


For an angry yet thoughtful discussion about this article, visit this Reddit comment thread.


16 Responses to Against Competition

  1. ilene says:

    your articulate post reminds me again that i want to read this book:


    • EricIndiana says:

      It looks like a very optimistic book. We just saw the Avatar movie the other night. With all of its cliches, the one thing that seemed cool & original to me was how they connected to other life forms with their hair tendrils. Did you see it?

      I’ve been reading & re-reading Nonviolent Communication. I even burned CDs of Marshall Rosenberg reading it – I can’t get to a training, so I want to train myself. It’s a lot like “I-statements” but less superficial, and with empathy at its core instead of assertion. It reminds me of what you were looking into at Leslie, and that’s what I was thinking about when I was thinking back to that time when I was watching the 2 little kids playing & wondering if I could get them to understand that they were really both part of one being.


  2. bracketbracket says:

    One, more constructive form of competition is modeled on the hunting party. A group of people head out to find and kill an animal. They work together, looking for tracks, trailing an animal, cornering it, killing it. There is friendly competition among the members of the hunting party. One hunter strikes the killing blow, but all the hunters and the whole tribe benefit from the fruits of the hunt.

    Friendly/cooperative competition, toward a shared goal, with a shared reward. Some companies and service organizations foster this type of win-win competition.


  3. Editor B says:

    “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?”

    I have a book I read to my daughter which emphasizes this perspective — the interconnectedness, I mean. It’s not specifically about competition or cooperation. It’s more like a spiritual worldview.

    Anyway it’s titled All I See Is Part of Me. In my opinion the illustrations and the verse leave something to be desired. But I haven’t found another book that represents this perspective.


    • EricIndiana says:

      Looks good. Little kids won’t be too picky about the artistic merits. I think I’ll obtain a copy for my next opportunity to read to younguns. I’d be interested in the conversation I could have with 1st graders about it. I could also sneak it into the consciousness of 4th or 5th graders by having them read it to younger kids.


  4. Jeffersonic. (DSK) says:

    I think competition is inevitable among separate living entities inhabiting corporeal forms requiring sustenance. However, I believe civilization is impossible without cooperation. Due to the evil side of capitalism, I believe competition is promoted much more emphatically than is prudent. (for a healthy civilization). I think I would point out the traps present in holding competition above cooperation. Competition is ubiquitous. Mating, eating, excreting, traveling, where is it not? In the terribly painful history of this country, it certainly has been overemphasized. So many civilizations, particularly the friendly, helpful ones have been decimated to bring us to this point. I’d say, emphasize cooperation and critical thinking and vigilance, and recognize competition’s pros and cons.

    So many people remain willfully ignorant of the price of rampant, unchecked capitalism and the most powerful strive to keep it this way. It is so easy to fall into being a drone, I know I’ve fought many battles against this and succumbed without initially realizing it, in my own life. Many have made it to their comfortable niche and can’t be bothered.

    Talk about a can of worms; I agree as well, that improperly applied team thought and blind patriotism are tools of the ruling class that lead to people becoming cannon fodder for the economic gain of the oligarchs. However, team thought is cooperation, obviously.

    I haven’t researched this, but I think it’s unlikely that humans are the only species to render another extinct. Are you certain of this?

    I think you could compare competition to fire; terrible when used improperly, but useful if carefully applied. I think the collective sports brain could use some refinement.

    I certainly agree with your concerns, and most of this post, though.


    • EricIndiana says:

      As far as I know, which is very little, the only time a species other than humans has wiped out another is when it’s been introduced by humans, like the cain frogs in Australia or invasive plant species. Maybe species have evolved that have displaced others. But generally, it would be counterproductive for a predator to eat all of its prey.

      But you’re right that competition & cooperation are things that nature keeps in balance. I mean, animals compete for territory and food but they also need other individuals of the species to survive & reproduce, as well as all the other creatures in their food chain, including their own predators.


  5. Jeffersonic. (DSK) says:

    I do think we’ve all got the predator in our nature and the scope of our vision tends to determine how often we employ it.


    • EricIndiana says:

      What was that Native American metaphor? Something about everyone having a wolf and a… or maybe it was 2 wolfs – an evil one & a good one, and they are fighting. The winner depends on the one you feed.


  6. Jeffersonic. (DSK) says:

    I believe they had proper Earth citizenship figured out better than most I’ve heard about.


  7. Doreen Van Assen says:

    playing the game charades, pretending, make believe are all good choices to build empathy for others, fun, you laugh even when you loose, charades was my favorite game to play with my kids. They are six years apart in age girl/boy and would both rotflol every time. I would choose something for them to pretend to be and the other one would guess what it was mostly animals and disney characters.


  8. Doreen Van Assen says:

    I think I remember hearing something in my ecology class about an island that some type of deer ate up all the available vegetation and became extinct, but I have never heard of a prey/predator die out.


  9. […] Against the backdrop of near-universal acceptance and celebration of competition, I will share my deep concerns about all forms of competition. READ FULL POST […]


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