As the school year has started, and with it a round of sports, I find myself wondering about how to teach my child about friendly competition. While there is research that suggests that competition can be harmful, it is unrealistic to ban all competition. And, as a college professor, I've certainly seen what happens when children grow up in a world where everyone is a winner and everyone gets a troophy. So, given that competition is inevitable, what can children learn from it?
There are different kinds of competition
To begin to understand what can be learned, we first need to understand that not all competitive situations are the same. We tend to think of situations as either being competitive or cooperative. But really, they are more complex than that. People can be both competitive and cooperative at the same time and people can shift between cooperation and competition. So when it comes to teaching our children how to engage in friendly competition, it may be more about teaching them when to be competitive rather than teaching them how to be competitive.
Some situations are zero-sum situations. Examples would be sports games - there can be only one winner, and there must be a loser. In these kinds of situations, the negative side of competition is likely to come out. For example, research by Stephen Garcia at the University of Michigan has shown that in such winner-take-all situations, people are less likely to act in friendly or cooperate with others. Moreover, the closer a person is to the top ranks, the more competitive and less cooperative a person is likely to act. So, people who are ranked #4 and #5 are less likely to cooperate with one another than when they are ranked #145 and #146.
Other situations are non-zero-sum. Examples would be in the classroom - everyone can earn an A and there does not necessarily need to be a loser. In these types of situations, the negative side of situation is less likely to come out. Again, research by Dr. Garcia shows that when people can call earn positive outcomes, they are more likely to cooperate. It is important to note that in these situations people may still compare themselves to others and be competitive, but cooperative motivations may also be in play.
Then, there are mixed-motive situations. In these situations, people may be competing with others, but may also be cooperating. An example would be in a team competition in an individual sport like gymnastics, golf, or swimming. In these competitions, individual team members are competing with one another to higher ranks, but they are also working together to win as a team. The success of a teammate is both good for oneself and threatening.
Skills learned in competitive situations
Each of these kinds of competitive situations requires different coping skills and can teach children different lessons. In a zero-sum situations, parents may need to focus on teaching children how to recover from loss, but also how to be gracious winners. While there is certainly research suggesting that competition in winner-take-all situations can be harmful to self-esteem and performance, it is a fact of life that often times not everyone can win. Teaching children that loss is a part of life, and that being outperformed can provide information about improve next time, can give them resiliency that they'll need in the future. Teaching children how to be gracious winners can also reinforce values like compassion and respect for others.
In situations where everyone can achieve, parents may need to guide children towards helping others. Children can be naturally competitive and the idea that there is enough for everyone can be hard for them to grasp. There can be a joy to working in concert with others and children should be given opportunities to experience this. In addition, working in situations where the achievement of the group is constrained by the weakest group member can teach children about leadership and motivating others.
Finally, mixed-motive situations are very rich learning environments. Over and over, research has shown that children who play sports are more successful in later life. One reason is that team sports are complicated situations where children can be challenged by the better performance of a rival but also encouraged by the better performance of a teammate. And, the rival and teammate might be the same person. Learning how to navigate that situation by compensating for threats to personal self-esteem with pride in one's team can teach children the skills they'll need in classrooms and workplaces in the future. It requires that children see beyond themselves and see the bigger picture, which promotes citizenship and compassion.