“Let me win … but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” (the motto of Special Olympics)

Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth.”

Alfie Kohn, 1987, in No Contest:  The Case Against Competition

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“If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?”

Vince Lombardi, Hall of Fame football coach

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Pictured here is the Church of St. Martin in Landshut, a city in the Bavarian region of Germany.  It boasts the tallest brick bell tower in the world, and is also the 3rd oldest brick belfry anywhere.  The top of the belfry stands 428 feet (130.6 meters) above the street below.  As you can see, it needed to be very tall in order to compete with all the other skyscraper buildings in Landshut and the surrounding countryside … ummm, NOT!

So, given that it is so “out of place” tall in that area, why build it so high?  I don’t know, but it was not just one person’s idea … the church took 110 years to build (including 55 years just to build the bell tower!), and was supervised by FIVE different architects, the last being the only one still living when the building was finally completed and dedicated in 1500 A.D.  Therefore, this required many people over multiple generations all being dedicated to building this almost ridiculously tall church tower.  Again, I wonder, why?!?  Why so tall?  Surely the priests there were aware of what happened when the good folks of Babel tried to build a tower that would reach all the way to “heaven”, back in ancient times.  It didn’t work, and they were all scattered to the winds, “Babelling” about things no one else could understand!

So, again I ask, why?  What compelled these people to want to build such a tall bell tower as part of their church?  It’s far out of proportion to the height and size of the main part of the church.  Were they attempting to compete with someone?  And if so, with whom?  Were the guys in the next town over trying to build a 425-foot tall belfry, and so the Landshuttians believed it their duty to outdo them?  Maybe.  Or were they trying to have the title of “Tallest Church in Christendom, and Everywhere Else, Too!” so they could hang a big sign outside, all lit up during the tourist season?  Perhaps.  One has to wonder if maybe they were thinking God would be more pleased with them (than those other rival churches who were so lazy and cheap that they only designed 250 foot tall bell towers) if they “thought big” (and tall)!

In any case, it seems clear to me that their mindset had to have featured at least some degree of competitiveness.  They may have had no idea how the finished height of the tower would have compared to other towers in the world, but they surely knew that it would be the tallest of any in that part of the country.  Was this fact important to the various architects and those who commissioned the project in the first place?  We can’t say with certainty, but it would be difficult to persuade me that it wasn’t.

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I wanted to write a couple of posts about the whole topic of ‘competition’.  Once again, I’ve picked a topic about which entire books have been penned, and so obviously I will be merely hitting what I hope will be the highlights (as opposed to the lowlights!).  I believe that “competitive” drives are in many ways dyed into the fabric of our being very early in life, to such a degree that we are only rarely aware of them and how they influence us.  For example, why should I care whether the aspects of competition I choose to write about will be ‘highlights’ or ‘lowlights’?  Because, I guess, I’m competing for your favor and for you to agree with me, in the final analysis, and this motivation colors how I think and make choices.  Further, though, I believe that these competitive drives are in many cases very “un-mentally-healthy”.  My goal is to explore this, to show myself and you all in what ways competition affects us in detrimental ways, but also to see if there are ways in which some competitive thinking and motivation are actually good and beneficial.  I hope to keep an open mind about this.  I don’t think that will be hard to do, though, as I happen to find this area of human functioning to be extremely fascinating.  At least part of the reason for that fascination is that we rarely examine the ways we are wired to compete, in so many ways and in so many settings, and for so many reasons.

You’ll notice there are two quotes above.  The first is the post title, which is the motto adopted by Special Olympics.  I love Special Olympics!  It plays a large and important role in the lives of a bunch of folks with whom I work, and whom I have come to love and cherish.  And, I love their motto.  It was not until I became a Special Olympics volunteer a few years ago that I learned of this motto.  Had you asked me to guess what their motto might be before that time, I would have responded it must be something along the lines of “When the Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.” (Grantland Rice, famous American sportswriter).  I would have guessed that the highest hopes of founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and others who worked to make Special Olympics work and grow were that it would be all about the joy of participating in physical activity and the fun of imitating competitions held in the actual Olympics.  While it is about those goals, the motto clearly indicates it is first and foremost about striving to win.  There is no doubt that it is a real competition.  This was an eye-opener for me.  But (and I heartily encourage all of you to look for ways you might be able to become a Special Olympics volunteer!) I came to more fully embrace the motto when I actually saw S.O. in action!  In S.O., winning IS important.  But bravely taking part is JUST as important, and you will see that in the way organizers treat both the athletes who win events and competitions and those who don’t.  It is equal, except in the color of the medals or ribbons.  That is AFTER the competitions end, though.  Before and during, the goal for all athletes is to WIN their event.  It ends up being, in my view, a very healthy balance of the highest teaching and motivation, to draw out one’s very best in the preparation and participation, and of the highest adulation and celebration for both ‘winners’ and participants.  It keeps the word ‘win’, but jettisons the term ‘lose’.

In the other two quotes, by Alfie Kohn and Vince Lombardi, you can see the stark contrast between those who view competition as always harmful, and those who build their whole philosophy around it.  As in so many things, I can see some virtue in both sides of this debate.  What I want to do is to discuss a few areas in which we instill competitive “instincts” in children, and see if we can then spot ways in which those instincts play themselves out in adolescence and adulthood.  And we’ll see what we will find.

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Obviously, our culture is built around competition.  In nearly every conceivable way, we compete.  We compete for jobs.  Politicians compete to be elected.  Capitalists compete for business, for market share, and for profits.  We compete for dates and for mates.  We compete in sports, in livestock shows and pie-baking contests at the fair, in decorating our homes for the holidays, in amassing the most and bestest ‘toys’, in just about everything you can think of.  We spend so much energy in our lives either trying to “keep up” or come out ahead.  From “Cutest Baby Contests” to beauty pageants to Little League to our entire educational system, almost everything in childhood ends up being a competition.  Perhaps the most pervasive competition in childhood occurs during early adolescence:  the ‘middle school’ years.  Competing to be in the most favorable social circles occurs at a fever pitch in these years, and most of the time no one wins.  Sure, some kids DO end up getting into, and staying in, the popular, cool, hip, awesome cliques, but at what cost?  How much of their soul did they give up to do so?  And then there are all of those who don’t.  I likely don’t need to go into much detail here.  All of us have seen either first-hand or close by how cruel kids are to one another and to themselves at that age.  In my experience, self-esteem gets murdered by this process.  This is why I’ve been in favor, for several years now, of banning middle school!  Make all kids be home-schooled from age 11 to 15, then return to high school.  I’m being somewhat facetious here, but I do wonder if it might not be an idea with merit.

In Alfie Kohn’s book he speaks about being on a talk show in the early 1970s which featured an interview with a 7 year old tennis star and his parents.  The boy had been playing tennis when he was 2, and by the age of 7 was regularly winning competitions throughout the country.  Someone in the audience asked the boy how he felt when he lost … his reply:  “Ashamed”, and hung his head.  This anecdote makes its point.  Not that all children are so driven to win and thus avoid shame.  But it is doubtful that this young child was born with this drive to win so strongly.  This kind of drive was instilled in him.  The feeling of being ashamed to ever lose was instilled in him.  Not necessarily by his parents;  there may have been coaches, grandparents, sponsors, tournament organizers, or others.  But, certainly the drive didn’t come from other children.  Adults were the authors of it.  Sad.  This and so many similar cases stand as witnesses against our unhealthy obsession with winning in everything, but also our false belief that “losing” (or anything other than winning) is somehow a bad thing.

When we think of competition, we first think of sports.  But really, sports and the incredible degree to which we (worldwide, not just in the U.S.) are consumed with them are only an outflowing of our philosophy of life.  Rivalry with others begins in childhood, as kids absorb the lessons their parents teach them, often indirectly.  Because we adults spend so much of our time and energy talking negatively about others, the message to our kids is clear.  They hear us, and learn.  If others (our boss, our coworkers, people at church, the checkout clerk at the store, the guy who pulled out in front of us on the road, our relatives, our neighbors, etc., etc.) treat us unfairly or disrespectfully, it’s ok to comfort ourselves by painting them in a bad light at home, on the phone with our friends, or in a variety of ways.  The message is that we are therefore better than that other person in some way (by the logic that he or she is worse than I), and that it’s a “good thing” to be better than someone else.  We even directly address this message to our children by pointing out the ways in which other children behave, speak, dress, groom, etc.  We do this in order to either give our children a “model” to aspire toward (the message being that “you” aren’t as “good” as that child, but you should be), or more commonly, an example of how not to behave, speak, dress, or groom themselves (the message being that “you” are “better than” that child and you’d better keep it that way!).

The bottom line is that we are competitive people in so many ways that most of the time we are completely unaware of it.  When it’s negative competition, that is, when the outcome is linked with being “superior” as a human being if we win, and being “less than” or “shamefully weak or bad” as a human being if we lose, no one really wins, as that superior feeling is purely based on falsehood.  It’s a house built on sand, and will only fill us with complacency and arrogance.

On the other hand, when being competitive is positive, the complete opposite occurs.  By this I mean, when being in a positive and uplifting competition of some sort causes me to strive to be and to do my very best, but not in order to “show the other guy up”, or to prove my worth as a person, then all can benefit.  And as with Special Olympics, when the outcome is that the winner is praised, and the non-winners are celebrated, it’s all good.

Now, some will argue that the “positive competition” I’m speaking of here is what is wrong with, particularly, America in this day and age.  They believe that this is the “soccer mom” complex in which “no child is left behind”, everyone gets a trophy, no one “fails”.  That’s not exactly what I’m speaking of.  I really think that it comes down to two things:  what are the real goals of a particular competition, and how are the winners and those who don’t win treated after the competition ends.

We’ll expand on those ideas in the next post.  Thanks for reading and, I hope, thinking along with me.

Craig Meek, M.D.

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