Competition, Self-Confidence, and Fun

My sons came home from their soccer game full of good news. "I think that was our team's best game," said the eight-year-old thoughtfully. "We didn't get nearly as tired in the second half as we've done before. That was the half we scored our goal." "I played great" said the eleven year old with enthusiasm. Then he added, as an afterthought, "We lost."

Their response to that game was music to my ears. We can't completely barricade off a world of cut-throat competition, a culture that demands that people be characterized either as winners or as losers. But as parents we can have an influence on how our children interact with those values, how much they take them on as their own.

I thought of all the different things we've tried. When we play card games, we note the winner (or winners) of each round, but don't keep an overall score. (And a favorite game is one that penalizes you for getting more than your bid as well as less, which turns the traditional assumption of winning on its head.) It's easy to take the competition out of party games--answering the Trivial Pursuit questions in a group, playing Pictionary without the board, doing charades without teams or scores. We've found a couple of wonderful cooperative board games, and are very loose with the rules of competitive ones, feeling free to change them, drastically, and in mid-stream if necessary, in order to ensure that everybody has a good time.

When my children started dabbling in team sports, however, I was apprehensive. I wasn't sure that I could stand against the overwhelming pressure of competition that seems inherent in that milieu, where the first question that comes to anyone's lips after a game is "Who won?" . I felt very lucky that my son's first coach really emphasized trying hard and having fun more than the score, and I tried to do the same. It was quite a challenge. I remember asking my son how a game had gone. When he said it was fine, I asked if he'd had any good plays, and he told me about them. When he seemed content with that report, I realized that I was the one who couldn't feel complete without knowing who won.

Trying to blunt the nasty edge of competition doesn't mean we have to lose sight of the core of value there--the desire to pursue excellence, to strive to improve, to not be satisfied with adequacy, comfort or mediocrity.

I remember being told about a Chinese ping-pong team when they were unsurpassed in the world. Their strategy, according to this report, was to try and place the ball exactly where the opposing player had to play right at the edge of his competence in order to return it. Although perhaps they still won all the games, they were actively challenging themselves, while offering a thoughtful challenge to others. On a simpler scale, in the obstacle courses the children like to organize at their birthday parties, we use the stopwatch. Each child is told their own time--and challenged to beat in on the second round.

Although the culture doesn't make it easy, I think we can have it all. And I find it immensely heartening that my children are offering me confirmation of that belief. We can strive for excellence--at nobody else's expense. We can figure out what we need to do to become winners in all aspects of life--and eliminate the category of losers altogether.