The End of Competition

boys coaching competition dodgeball self-esteem

Protecting Delicate Egos

The problem I think schools have with competition is the implication that the winner is better than the loser. God forbid we give little Johnny the impression that he isn't the greatest thing since chocolate milk. We are so afraid of hurting a kid's ego that we gleefully instill the delusion that they can do no wrong, that they will always succeed, and that even if they just show up and put in no effort, they will still be recognized.

I think this fear of hurting kid's egos stems from the school shootings that have been occurring. Parents and teachers think that kids with low self-esteem will lash out.

This is a mistake. Research has shown that violent youth often have higher-than-average self-esteem; basically violence is the result of an inflated self-image running up against someone or something that disputes it. (The article points out that most words for high self-esteem have more negative connotations: pride, arrogance, egotism, vanity, etc.). A kid with an unrealistic self-image will be more likely to see threats to his ego, and will be more likely to respond with aggression as he seeks to protect his self-image.

People who think they don't need to earn anything will eventually assume that they can just take what they want. Anyone who stands in their way is being depraved, according to their standards, and is worthy of punishment.

Much better the teach the need to work hard to overcome challenges, since that is the way problems are dealt with in reality. Let kids lose, and let them understand that they cannot be the best at everything. We learn the lessons of life's hardships as children, when our worldviews and our minds are most adaptable. If we fail to learn these lessons then, they become much harsher and difficult to adapt to when we get older.

Lacking a Good Foundation

I hate that competitiveness is so taboo these days, but I understand why. It is a problem that many children these days lack basic concepts of sportsmanship. Teamwork is lost on them. All that seems to matter is getting their own way, or getting personal attention. Contributing to a larger group or community is not very high on the priority list of most 5th and 6th graders.

Maybe they are simply too young to have these concerns, but I can't help thinking about the environment. I coach at a college prep school, in one of the wealthiest counties in the US. These kids get whatever they want, whenever they want. Even those whose parents attempt to instill a sort of discipline still have it much, much better than almost every other child on the planet. The lesson that is taught is that their personal needs are always met, and that they will never have to put aside their interests for others, whether those are material or emotional interests. Kids will be quick to put down another and point out his mistakes, and call it unfair when the same is done to them a minute later. Basically, they don't see that their gloating hurts their peers; all they care about is reveling in their victory.

So the question is whether or not competitive sports will improve or worsen the problem. On the one hand, learning how to be good sports necessitates exposure to competitive situations; how can a kid learn good sportsmanship if he is never tested? On the other hand, maybe we are just reinforcing bad habits by giving kids the opportunity to exercise them in competitive situations.

Revealing Bad Character

I see sports as both an opportunity for growth as well as a test of character. In a cultural foundation that promotes personal gain over community and group success, sports only bring out the negative traits, especially in kids too young to question the lessons of society.

I have also started volunteering at gymnastics, helping out with the boys team practices. One thing I've noticed is that the boys are nearly impossible to control. They will talk while the coach is talking, push each other around, give hardly any attention to the exercises being done, and are generally less accomplished and less disciplined. Annoyingly, the more accomplished kids tend to be the least manageable. Compare this to the girls, who are consistently hard-working, attentive, and sociable.

Considering that the boys are the source of the problem with dodgeball as well, there seems to be a larger issue with the way boys are being raised. I don't accept that 'boys will be boys' and that's just the way it is, because I know some boys who are model athletes and scholars. They listen and work hard, support their peers, and still have a lot of fun. Boys can be just as hard-working as girls, but they aren't in most cases, to the point that it has become a damaging stereotype that simply excuses the behavior and allows parents to brush it off as normal.

I feel that boys lack good role models these days. Male culture seems to have declined considerably since the Second World War. Boy Scouts are no longer fashionable, camping and hiking has taken a back seat to video gaming, the ideal of the strong, hard-working, self-sacrificing man has been replaced by the undernourished emo kid in skinny jeans. I'd go so far to say that intelligent men have become ashamed of their physical strength, leaving muscles and physical culture to others more concerned with appearance and picking up women. Masculinity is either threatening or seen as destructive.

The result is a lot of boys who are not held to very high standards of behavior. Any problems are diagnosed as ADHD rather than being dealt with in a more direct fashion. Boys are thus given excuses for their behavior, and without any examples to idolize, they have no reason to change or aspire to something else.


That is where coaches come in. I see my job as teaching boys how to be competitive team players, who will try their best but also understand the importance of respecting those better than them. So much of what I teach my Cross Country team is simply, "run your best race," because all they seem to care about is being better than everyone else. At our last meet they said they should just leave because they didn't think they could win. If this is the attitude kids have about sports, then I agree we should not let them keep score.

I try to show them that all they can do is their personal best. They should be inspired by others, and try to beat them and put in an honest effort, but in the end, it isn't about the other person winning or losing. The other person is merely there as a way to hold us to higher standards, a way to measure our own efforts. The difference between healthy and unhealthy competition is so subtle it is almost nonexistent, but I think it is an important distinction to make.

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