The Need to Compete
Thursday, 7 March 2013
This post is fueled with the frustration experienced when people institute shallow initiatives. The particular initiative comes from a Toronto Soccer league making it so that no score is kept at the games for kids. This is not wise and is a hollow effort. It does more damage to kids than it does them good. There is more that I can teach a child by properly teaching him/ her the joys of competition than could ever be taught by attempting to take away competition. I do not rant though, it is as pointless as taking away competition from a game and I will become like a spectator or a coach who only plays for the notch of a win. Instead I will tell a story or two and, if you do not get the positive side of competition from these stories then why rant? ps. The kids I coached ALL got the point.
Before I tell the story I will try to get across in writing an object lesson taught to kids at some point in a season. I get them to play checkers or imagine a game of checkers. They then are to imagine playing against an opponent that purposely feeds their pieces to them and gets themselves jumped. This person has no heart for winning so either loses on purpose or puts no effort into improving to win. The reason the person loses all the time is irrelevant. The question is then put to these kids, “would you want to play checkers against this opponent” The answer, 100% of the time is NO. Would you?
First story. YMCA Basketball. My first coaching time without my own children involved. In this league the official position is that the score was not allowed to be kept. Wow did this make coaching hard. The kids all kept score and those on my team knew they were in last place. What was the adult to do? Tell them they were wrong to possess this information? Tell them they were wrong for recognizing it? Ironically it made keeping of the point values a sub culture and, as a sub culture, it made it nefarious. The coach was wrong to go against the stated culture and he was an idiot to not work with what was an obvious fact anyway. Working with it would have taught the benefits of competition and opened up dialogue about how they felt being at the bottom and what they could do to overcome it. The way things stood they still felt all of the negative feelings of being the team that only the second last place team liked to play but it was more difficult to coach them to success.
On this team was one particular boy who showed no enthusiasm for improving and blamed others on his team for being the reason for our loss. He was a nice enough boy and had a certain natural talent for the game but he was not a good team player, he did not recognize the need to encourage and support his fellow players. This boy wanted to win soooo bad. It was very upsetting for him to be on the losing team. Paul (a fictitious name) was also a schemer and he was pretty smart. Approaching me at our practice his plan was put into action. The following leading questions were posed. “Is it true that the YMCA was formed to help youth learn and play sports?”, “Is it fair to have someone who is too poor to afford the cost miss out on a much needed sport?” “Can my poor friend come out to at least one game?” “Well sure Paul. Have him come out this Friday when we play the second last team.” was my response The battle had begun and Paul was about to learn a valuable lesson. From the start of the first question I could see right through him.
Sure enough Paul brought Tom to the next game. Tom was a fifteen year old who stood 6’2″ tall and had an obvious talent for the game. Tom was going to be our ticket to win and therefore overcome being the last place team. I approached Paul just to clarify a few points. I posed the following questions. “Is Tom looking forward to being able to join us?” “Are you ok knowing your parents had to pay to participate while he gets to come for free?” “Is the point of sport to win or rather to improve and show our capabilities?” “Should we win at all costs?” The answers are rhetorical just as Paul’s initial questions really only had one answer. I told the team to hold on while I went to talk to the other coach. I came back from the conference carrying a T shirt in the other teams colour. This Jersey was given to Tom with a pat on the back and my hopes that he would enjoy the game. Paul was sharp enough to give me a wan smile. My team got the point. Sure it is about winning and winning is critical but it is not everything.
What a great game. My team tried harder than they ever had and interacted with each other as a unit. Tom, our guest was a crazy crazy team player and watching him brought tears to the eyes. He did not take a single shot. Tom was a point guard whose thrill was encouraging and enabling his team mates to succeed. He passed to the least and the greatest of them. Male or female, short or tall. Note, Tom competed to set up others, he competed to see how he could make other’s better. He reviewed their abilities, he reviewed their past accomplishments and strove to make his next pass either just a bit harder or easier based on what went on before. Competition was not minimized by doing what I did or what our guest did. It did not disappear doing what the YMCA did. It was in fact celebrated without making the “win” the only proof of it existing. There was a balance. (A win does not prove there is competition and is a separate thing from competitiveness)
The next story is much the same. In coaching girls softball one of the things that was difficult to get across was competition as I understood it. Chants were a competitive thing with the girls as were the uniform moderations but neither of these were understood by me. It was apparent that they hated losing but it seemed to me as if there was a slight culture that dictated that aggressiveness to the win was not a good thing. They seemed to prefer to strive to look demure like it was the contest. It was somehow offensive to really get dirty and to play to win. The joy for the dirt and the testosterone were lacking. Rereading this it is odd because there was no attempt by me to make them “win”. There was an affection for them and a sense of their talent that had nothing to do with the game of baseball or basketball. I know I did not need to win, that I was not disappointed by the losses and that I regretted having “the worst player” on my team. It was also clear that there was no way to bring out the qualities of these girls without competition and a certain competitive nature. Another difficulty in writing this is that there are no synonyms for competitive that fit the bill of what I tried to teach. Assertive, confidant, willing, capable and growing are words that make up a good competitor. Aggressive, rude, driven and obnoxious are words that do not describe a good opponent or team mate. “Competitive” seems to demand the latter personality traits and so, when I am done this post, I will work on rewriting the definition and connotation of the word.
Practices were fun. The dirt was a success. Diving into a sand pit to catch a ball thrown just out of reach and work at perfecting sliding techniques were a hit. The whipping of the tea towel to understand force on a bat. The analogies of bananas and oranges that somehow all of them remember and still don’t get (I don’t think I take analogies that far…they must be teasing). Teaching them to strive not to win or be better but to grab a star. Historically for me in sports it was never the trophy that counted it was always that one play that was made where I was needed, where I rescued the team and where “it should not have worked”. Memories of the ball caught over my bad shoulder with the sun in my eye or the stolen base never went away, the trophies did. Frankly the win loss ratio was never remembered. So the girls got my lessons. They got it when my girl hit the most fantastic hit far into left field. She knew by the feel of the bat and the sound as it hit the ball. She knew it inside and by the oohs and ahhs in the crowd. My girl created wonder and tension. Added up there was only one thing to make this hit “unsuccessful”. To have it be caught by an opponent by flying through the air with the sun in her eyes would and did it. Despite this apparent failure and the woosh of disappointment that came over our team they got it when I clapped for the play, cheered my opponent and cried with delight. Everybody shined. With some explanation the girl who got the hit understood the gift she gave the outfielder. By becoming such a capable batter, by being the one to back up for, she became the batter that made heroes. Her opponent would never have gotten my praise if it was not for this. Dreams were made by beating the unbeatable, by not placing your pieces in checkers such that they are easily taken. This is the essence of competition.
The only reason to take away keeping score is not to help the kids but to stop the obnoxious coaches and parents who do not get the joy of sport. Kids can get it if taught properly. Maybe what is needed is for good parents who know what joy is and understand what I have written to stand up to the plate. To be competitive against the loud obnoxious parents. It is tough because it is so hard to teach your children gentleness when you are facing off against ignorance. The answer I do not have but I do know that stating that it is the competition that hurts the kids is just wrong. Properly defined and taught it is one of the most thrilling parts of life.