When Kids Compete Winning Isn’t the Only Thing, It is Everything

Katherine White
One with Heart Program Coordinator

Kids Jumping Pad

I think Vince Lombardi had it backwards when he famously said:  “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” A lot has changed since he was top football coach in the 1960’s including the way many of us think about sports, competition, and what it means to win. One with Heart holds several tournaments a year where kids compete with kids of their own age and rank in forms and fighting. These competitions have shown me what healthy competition can look like and feel like. When I say winning is everything, this has nothing to do with coming in first.

I grew up in the 60’s. I was not an athlete. I was the one who was picked last for the team. I became very creative at escaping required PE participation and, when forced to play, was likely to score the winning point for the opposing team. It was a competitive time. For girls, options for participation in sports were limited and athleticism was not really encouraged but, girl or boy, if you played, you’d better win. Kids like me learned our best chance at social survival was to avoid athletic competition at all cost.

It turns out the cost can be high. Besides the life-long health benefits of regular athletic activity, kids who participate in sports tend to do better in school, show stronger goal setting and leadership skills, have better self-esteem, and are less likely to be depressed and engage in self-destructive behavior. In adulthood these skills can translate to healthier relationships, greater career accomplishments, and a more satisfying overall quality of life.

I was a judge at One with Heart’s kids tournament last month. What I saw was nothing like the experiences that drove me away from sports 50 years ago. I saw kids show heart and courage as they stood before teachers and peers. I saw mutual respect between students and teachers. I saw genuine support and comradery amongst teammates who were competing with one another. And most of all I saw kids experience winning as a whole lot more than coming in first.

Since competition and sports tend to go hand in hand, many sports foster a culture of winners and losers. In the most highly competitive sports, winners feel entitled, losers feel humiliated and athletes compete in ways that compromise their health and personal integrity.  Given the benefits of athletic participation it is worth looking for ways for kids to participate but avoid the traditional pitfalls of competition.

There are passionate arguments on both sides of the question as to whether competition is good for kids. One of the most articulate and well know opponents of competition for children is author and lecturer Alfie Kohn. In his work he addresses the toxic nature of competition in sports, parenting, education and the workplace.  He argues that competition is based on ‘conditional regard’ and is highly destructive to a child’s psychological health and development[i].  On the other hand Tim Elmore is a leadership expert who tells educators that when children compete they develop resilience, motivation and ambition required for happiness and a sense of self-worth throughout their life[ii]. As a parent and teacher I have come across plenty of emotional, mean spirited opinions, such as one recently expressed in an Oregonian editorial (Nov. 28, 2015) by Kathleen Parker, blaming the ‘Everyone Gets a Trophy Culture’ for raising kids who aren’t “brave, honest and hardy in the face of adversity.” She thinks kids should learn early that the ‘real world’ is made of winners and losers.

As adults we have something to do with what the ‘real world’ looks like. If the only thing to winning is coming in first, then every competition has just one winner. The other 99 percent who do their best are losers. Surely we can do better than prepare our children to be brave, honest and hardy in the face of this kind of manufactured adversity. In fact as you look at these numbers you can’t help but see the parallel with the We Are the 99 Percent movement which demands that we recognize and reward the accomplishments of more than the wealthiest 1 percent of the population.

It may seem like quite a leap from how we handle athletic competition with our kids to changing the world, but I am not so sure it is. Competitions like the tournament at One with Heart provide a tangible reason for kids to practice, focus, and develop themselves to the best of their ability. They give kids a place to shine but also a safe place to take risks, face fears, and push themselves past their comfort zone. This is how kids develop internal strength and experience the rewards of perseverance. Competitions reward excellence because excellence is beautiful and inspiring. When we see and acknowledge excellence in any field, whether it be sports, art, science, literature, we see a glimpse of what is possible and, through the accomplishments of others, we see ways to improve our self

A few kids do take home a first place medal at One with Heart, but everyone who participates is recognized as a winner.  The adults who run the competition respect what it takes to stand on your own and give it your all. Everything that moment represents is what winning is about. Everything that is gained prepares kids to be excellent wherever their talent and passion leads them. They will decide what the real world looks like tomorrow. If they have the confidence to take risks, appreciate excellence, treat one another with mutual respect, and value the participation of all people, I think the world will look very different than it does today. A narrow view of winning limits everyone. When winning is everything, anything is possible.

[i] For more information about Alfie Kohn visit his website at: http://www.alfiekohn.org/

For articles by Alfie Kohn about Kids and Competition:

http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/trophyfury/

http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/fun-fitness-without-competition/

[ii] To read Tim Elmore’s argument on the benefits of competition for kids:

http://growingleaders.com/blog/how-adults-are-stealing-ambition-from-kids/

“Competing Views on Competition” by Matt Ritchel

The New York Times, Oct. 8, 2012

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/11/garden/the-role-of-competitiveness-in-raising-healthy-children.html?_r=0