The Important Lesson in March Madness
Competing--and losing--are a part of life
Posted March 29, 2015
I normally use my blog to discuss the importance of close, affectionate relationships for well-being and health. Like millions of Americans, though, I have made time in my March schedule to follow the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament. Along with most fans, I’ve cheered with joy every time my favorite team has prevailed, and I suffered the disappointment of its recent loss. And in that process, I’ve been reminded as an educator of the importance of competition and the harm we do to children when we shield them from it.
In yesterday’s Elite Eight games, Notre Dame lost in the last second of play to undefeated Kentucky after leading for much of the game, and Arizona suffered a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin, the same team that knocked them out of last year’s tournament. In each case, both the victors and the losers complimented their competitors on a hard-fought game. There was no “trophies for everyone” nonsense. The losses produced tears and genuine disappointment for players, coaches, and fans alike—yet there was a collective understanding that despite how hard they try, not everyone can win.
We accept the reality of competition in many realms of life. In political races, someone wins and someone loses. We realize when we interview for a new job or put in for a promotion that we might get it and we might not. Competition isn’t a cultural or social construct; it has deep evolutionary roots. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat serve adaptive purposes for the human species—and we undermine these advantages when we shield our children from the inconvenience of competition in a misguided effort to protect their self-esteem. Whether by handing out ribbons to everyone or eliminating contests altogether, we protect our children’s emotions in the short term while preventing them from developing the important life skills of being gracious in victory and accepting the reality of defeat. I see the effects of this practice in college students who expect to receive points for simply showing up and trying, regardless of how they actually perform.
In March Madness, the winners advance to play another game, and the losers go home to regroup. Athletes from the losing teams don’t win trophies. They may feel satisfaction in knowing they played their hardest, but they don’t demand points for effort. They acknowledge that they were bested, they congratulate their opponents, and they live to fight another day. There’s an important lesson here for our children: The measure of character isn’t in whether you win or lose, it’s in how you win and how you lose.
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