Competition for children – good or bad ?

An article on BBC website this morning prompted this post. A slightly daft bit report by Ofsted in my view – pupils at private schools to excel at some sports where financial support is needed to make progress – genius. However, there were a couple of interesting points within it. “The majority of state school heads said competitive sport was optional. Only 13% said they expected all students to take part. The report finds that in the most successful schools, both state and private, heads recognise that competitive sport can help build an ethos and boost grades.”

There have been many debates on whether being competitive is good or bad for children. As you can see from some of the comments on the BBC article. The “it’s good” vote say that life is a competitive, children need to be prepared for the real world and it’s wrong to wrap children in cotton wool. The “it’s bad” vote say that not all children want to take part in competitive sport and it can result in a feeling of exclusion if they aren’t good enough.

Is either view right? I suspect as with most things, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

There is no doubt life is competitive. Exams and qualifications, getting into higher education, getting a job, finding a partner, buying a house, getting a good deal, making a complaint, getting fit, sticking to a diet, inventing time travel …… Whether you are competing with yourself or competing with others, life is competitive.

Spurred on by that intro, I hear the “it’s good” voters cry out for more competition. We need to know who’s won, who’s lost, whether we’re moving up or down the league tables. Is that the way forward ?

A quick dart into the history of 100m sprint tells you plenty about competitive sports. Not one of the runners in the 1980 Olympic 100m final would have made the London final in 2012 and most wouldn’t have even made the semi’s. There is no doubt that competition leads to improvement and evolution is fundamentally about pushing the boundaries further. If everyone around you is achieving better results, then your results will be dragged up. It might not be that you ultimately, win, but consciously or sub-consciously you will try harder to be in the game.

So what’s the issue – competitive sports for all. However let’s go back to the “it’s bad” vote and consider the person who isn’t gifted in an event. Let’s use the Olympics again and look at a swimming Sydney 2000 when Eric Moussambani swam 1m 52s for 100m freestyle compared to the World Record of 48 seconds at the time. As he came down the final 20m the commentators were suggesting he might not make it and would need to grab the lane rope. Fortunately, he survived and received a massive ovation when he finally arrived. Now Eric achieved fame and notoriety for his efforts – after all it was the Olympics and isn’t it as much about taking part.

But how would that have gone down at the local High School? If the teacher didn’t make Eric feel bad enough by shouting all sorts of “encouragement” his way, then you’d be fairly sure the other classmates would plug the gap. And I bet Eric’s confidence might suffer post race and he’s unlikely to be the coolest kid in school anymore. So if you’re no good, why bother if the result might be no better than ridicule ?

It’s a fair point but it’s interesting how the Olympic story is one of triumph against adversity and standing ovations. Yet the High School equivalent is utter misery. But clearly it’s not the competitive sport that’s the issue – it’s the same 100m swimming in both – it is the surroundings and how winning and losing is positioned.

What we shouldn’t do is remove the competition. Eric might be weak at swimming, but great at art or maths or writing. Samantha, who is poor at writing is a great sprinter. Why should she be denied her opportunity to shine. Surely by the same token as the “it’s bad” voters use for competitive sport, writing should be removed from the curriculum.

I am a big supporter of competitive sports and indeed competition in general and it should absolutely be part of education – and I don’t think it should just relate to sports. I recently played a new board game called PLYT with my children. It’s about numeracy but it’s very different from other games I’ve played – firstly because I could actually play properly without pretending to have the mental age of a 7 yr old and secondly because it is competitive. If I’d have told them “here’s an educational game about numeracy” there is no way they’d have played, but it was great and the children loved it – they just wanted to compete, to try to win and to see me and their mum having as much difficulty as they were. As with the 100m sprinting, the more they played, the better they were and they kept pushing the boundaries. Brilliant !

What we have to deal with, however is making sure that people know how to win and lose with right attitude. That in itself is education. We want children at the High School to look at Eric and cheer, applaud and make him feel great about making it to the line regardless of his position. Then maybe Eric might be encouraged rather than discouraged and perhaps next time he’ll clock a couple of seconds quicker – that’s progress and he’s now competing with himself as well as the others.

Winning is great and it does inspire people to push themselves harder so they can be successful. However, it’s not only about winning. It’s about wanting to have a go, wanting to join in with the others and most importantly feeling happy when you’ve done it. But it is the society around you that will determine that most important element – how you feel afterwards.

So let’s promote competition but at the same time let’s educate society on how to treat winners and losers rather than pretend they don’t exist.


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