Is competition a bad thing?

true competition versus decompetition

We live in a society where words no longer have meaning, their definitions being freely refashioned. Effective communication is a becoming a figment of our imagination as language muddles in a mirky puddle of confusion. Vitriolic confrontation is something we don’t lack in everyday life, but by simply requesting a definition of terms, many of these poor, emotionally laced arguments collapse under their own weight. Undergirding my thesis here is a focus on semantics – shock, shock. We are going to be wordsmithing here, so if you don’t like to think, you might as well move along. I will assure you, though, a Shakespearan dialect won’t be critical to be impacted by reading this. So, stick around; your outlook on and pursuit of excellence – in all spheres – is about to find its true foundation. To do so, we must address the etymology of a word which has gotten a bad rap lately: competition. If I do it well, I think the question I posed in the title will be easily answered.

The prevailing wisdom of the age tends to lean towards a shying away from competition. People who identify it as a negative aspect are praised. Alfie Kohn’s 1992 treatise, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, which highlights a century’s worth of research castigating contests of all form, won an award from the American Psychological Association. The book puts “competition” on trial; the verdict: guilty. It’s main arguments are as follows (from page 19 of True Competition):

  • Competition undermines performance
    • creates stress – interferes with optimal performance
    • focuses attention on defeating others rather than on performing well.
  • Competition has negative psychological consequences
    • Competition undermines a sense of intrinsic self-worth.
    • It fosters insecurity and undermines self-esteem.
    • It creates undue anxiety, envy, humiliation, and shame.
  • Competition is ethically wrong
    • Competition fosters interpersonal hostility, prejudice, and aggression
    • It encourages a belief that we benefit only at the expense of others.

In the book True Competition: A guide to pursuing excellence in sport and society, authors David Light Shields and Brenda Light Bredemeier acknowledge Kohn’s conclusions and research as being sound, but for a different term: decompetition. The way they see it:

  • Decompetition undermines performance
  • Decompetition has negative psychological consequences
  • Decompetition is ethically wrong
  • Reflecting on the title, the foreward of Shield and Bredemeier’s text is most appropriately written by Bill Bradley. Who better embodies achievements in both sport and society (I can think of Jim Ryun or Alan Page off the top of my head)? Bradley states:

    “True competition is a powerful book. The authors clearly separate competition from a destructive look-alike, which they call decompetition.”

    A subtle semantic swap with magnificent, reverberating consequences – both for sport and society. He continues: “Whatever your position or vocation, it can help you turn competition into a positive force. Whether you are a coach or an athlete, an educator or a parent, a businessperson or a politician, or just a curious reader, True Competition can help you and those you work with rise to new levels of excellence and enjoyment.”

    Thought it remains the most long-lasting, impactful book I read in my M.S. in Exercise Science program, I did not come to this column with promotional intentions. My goal is to apply True Competition‘s thesis to point out how society is misguided in their celebration of athletes who settle for ties, shy away from the heat, admit defeat, and succumb to burdensome pressures, all elements of competition which, when framed properly, work to bring out the best in athletes. Notice my own subtle designation: I’m NOT saying the admittance of being human is wrong. This is important (and applies to the case of Simone Biles, a case everyone and their mother has analytically and philosophically exhausted). In the right context, athletes being open and honest in their failures, their struggles, and their general humanity is a good thing, a healthy reminder to young and old alike. It is, however, altogether different than an athlete who gives up while surrounded by fire (which can, occasionally, cause mental, physical, and emotional stress), or two athletes who agree to a tie, and I find celebration of this uncalled for. 

    On August 2, Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi agreed to share gold in the olympic high jump. If you’re like me, you didn’t realize this was even possible. Basically, they had a choice: 1) jump off to settle the tie, 2) accept the tie; both athletes get a gold medal.

    The vexing jet-skis of the Simone Biles story finally retreated, but a peaceful morning on the dock of Olympic viewing is not to be. A mega wake-board boat just rounded the point, bringing their loud rap music and crashing waves to bombard our dock with more disturbance. So, like a good lake association member, I need to comment. 

    Here is the thing: if you have a correct (yes, objectively correct) definition of competition, based on its etymology, you’ll understand why their decision shouldn’t be celebrated. You have a right to think it was a smart play – heck, I think it was. Frankly, if both athletes are guaranteed gold by settling for a tie, in what circumstance would ANYONE ever elect to pursue an ‘overtime’ jump off? It’s preposterous. Given this, I am not here to berate Barshim or Tamberi. In their position, I would have done the same thing. My condemnation and subsequent correction is directed at the IOC (or whomever has this rule/option in place). If they are actually about fostering the Olympic spirit and the righteous ideals of sport, they shouldn’t endorse or even allow a situation where two athletes could tie. And here is the thing:

    I’m all about people leaving happy, fulfilled, and expressing their best. AND THAT is precisely why we needed a jump off. 

    The word competition is derived from the Latin ‘petere,’ meaning “to strive” or “to seek,” and ‘com,’ meaning “with.” Together, competition means “to strive or seek with.” See, this is why we should care about reading, writing, and language in schools. You should already have an idea of where I’m headed. 

    In the words of Shields and Bredemeier:

    True competition involves striving together; it involves seeking excellence together. In true competition, the competitors think about the contest as an opportunity for enjoying a quest after personal (and perhaps team) excellence. In true competition, each party pursues excellence by trying to meet the challenge presented by the opponent’s best effort.

    I define true success as “the satisfaction of knowing you gave 100% effort to maximize your full potential.” To try your best to be your best. True competition, if interested in helping me AND others reach my best, is something I, and all athletes, coaches, bosses, parents, etc., SHOULD be most interested in. People with a right understanding of competition desire to face the best competition – and hope their competitors are at their best – because the way they see it, this will help them reach their best. It allows them to scale new heights they couldn’t have imagined possible. To them, the whole point of sport is the pursuit of true success – the Seder-Skier/John Wooden version of success.

    Competition focuses on excellence and the enjoyment found in pursuing it. Decompetition, the evil twin, is interested in conquest. In Kohn’s world, competition and cooperation are opposites, but that is because he mischaracterizes – redefines – competition as a war. Healthy competition is not a war. It is a partnership. Shields and Bredemeier believe genuine competition is a “subset of cooperation,” enabling participants to “push each other towards personal excellence. …. (competition) enables opponents to simultaneously experience the joy of challenge and effort.” Everyone gets to improve and feel the exhilaration of a contest, no matter the outcome.

    This should be music to the ears of the guardians of the highest ideals of sport. Who are those guardians? On the international stage, I don’t know who holds those authoritative positions. Locally, coaches, athletes, teachers, and anyone else in a leadership role are responsible. This could be you! If you are a parent, teaching your own kids true competition is vital to their growth. Educate yourself on what true competition is and allow it to appropriately shape your teaching/coaching/leadership philosophy.

    If my explanation of Shield and Bredemeier’s proposition resonated with you, you probably cringed, even a little at the high jump tie. Hopefully, you at least realize why I did. Wouldn’t a jump-off brought out amazing things in both of these tremendous athletes as they went even deeper, “striving together” towards that ultimate goal – their very best?

    Well, I guess they both got their gold medals….I’m sure they won’t lose much sleep over it.

    But…. should we? 

    Just magical': joy for Tamberi and Barshim as they opt to share gold in men's  high jump | Olympic Games | The Guardian

    2 thoughts on “Is competition a bad thing?

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