Why are we so obsessed with competition? I totally get the Olympics and high level sporting competitions – people pushing themselves beyond what they think they can achieve.
The bit I struggle with, and I may be in a minority here, is the need to manufacture a competitive environment for our children and young people. I know that a little competition can drive some children to excel, but I also know that more children actually give up and not try at all as a result. I have written about this before as it’s a constant worry to me.
I see my own teenagers struggling to keep up with their peers in areas that really don’t matter in the scheme of things. For example, my daughter is frightened of heights, extreme rides and anything involving that heightened feeling of fear. Due to some of her early experiences her body reacts easily to fear stimulus and it takes her into a state of panic. Some of it is also her personality – she’s not adventurous by nature.
Having said all that, this last weekend we were at an activity centre where there were high ropes and she hates these. Many a time she’s frozen in fear when she’s been on these before. So, this time I told her not to go if she didn’t want to, she had nothing to prove to anyone. However, she did go as others encouraged her and again cried her way around, shaking and terrified.
What good does this do her? I can here you saying – “she’ll feel good at overcoming her fears” yes, she might, but at what expense? Her body is taken into a state of fight, flight or freeze that will take her hours to come down from.
Don’t get me wrong, there are moments and things that I encourage her to overcome because she needs them to function. Getting on a bus, meeting new people, going to college, ordering things in a restaurant. They are all things she’s anxious about and they deserve her energy to overcome those. But, climbing high ropes – will she ever need that skill again? Probably not!
What does this have to do with competition?
Well, I’ve been reminded again this weekend that my thought processes are often against the flow of what others think. Seeing teenagers pitted against each other in competition in areas that some have no chance of succeeding has left me troubled. At school children are all too familiar and aware that they are compared to each other. As much as we say they aren’t, they know where they are in the class and for some the fact that they will never win causes them to give up.
I wonder if we looked at life more like a marathon that a sprint whether that would change our approaches to children and competition? I’ve never run a marathon but have known many people who have, and it seems that the challenge is a personal one. People who sometimes have never run before will sign up to prove something to themselves, to get fit and to push themselves to the limit. They aren’t entering to win but for the personal sense of achievement.
In a sprint it’s different – you are in it to win. If you’ve ever been to a school sports day you know the dreaded parent race is the one where competitive Dads risk heart attacks to show they still ‘have it’. The point is to win – not to just take part.
I wish in more of our groups of children and young people we would encourage personal bests and helping each other, instead of highlighting once again the disadvantages some children have.
There were also other times during this last weekend where the group of young people I was with were cheering each other on to reach new heights – literally. The leap of faith (where you jump from a high pole to a bar) was so amazing to see each child, whatever their physical ability, trying their best to reach the top and do the jump with the shouts of encouragement from their friends. This is how it should be.
I know that my opinions on this will be challenged by many reading this who love competition and can see the good it brings out in others. But I have a few questions for you to consider:-
- Is the competition fair and equal?
- Does the competition allow room for individuality?
- Are people united or divided as a result of the competition?
- What good things does it bring out in people?
- What bad things does it bring out in people?
- Could we find other ways to develop opportunities for growth?
- Is the competition making EVERYONE feel good about themselves?
I am worried about the lack of self-esteem and anxiety in our young people at the moment and the big question I have and will continue to process is – does competition increase self-esteem and decrease anxiety, or does it actually decrease self-esteem and increase anxiety?
I know which one I’d rather spend my time and energy on encouraging in our generation. Let’s find the best ways to increase self-esteem and decrease anxiety.