Who Killed Competition?

gymnasts

After attending a recent family event, I learned a hard and painful lesson. Competition is dead because well meaning parents and teachers killed it a long time ago. After what I witnessed, there is little hope for a recovery. The debate about a free market system versus a socialistic one is a hot topic again thanks in part to the heavily reported 2011 Republican primary contest. These capitalism defending, (thank goodness someone is) competitors are frequenting talk shows and participating in countless debates agreeing with one another of the need for less government and regulation to spur on our troubled economy. The free market works because of competition. It is funny that a discussion of competition leads to no competition. The Republicans all agree. As do I and almost every entrepreneur I know.  The next generation is going to have an impossible time understanding the concept of competition because the best environment to learn about it has been poisoned. Sports.

My husband’s family invited us to attend a gymnastics meet where their 9 year old daughter was performing. I was looking forward to the event for many reasons, not the least of which was to recall my own glory days. I was something of a prodigy as a girl just a few years older. I won numerous meets including state championship events and went on to be the youngest member of the varsity high school team, I was a freshman. This was a different time and place I know, but the lessons learned were that winning came at a price. For me, it meant 6 hours a day most days working on routines, developing skills, taking lessons, competing in meets. I learned from losing, getting injured, getting back up, working harder, losing again, getting hurt again, trying harder and then winning. I liked winning. I got good at it. Winning made me want to win again. It gave me feedback. So did losing. I didn’t like losing.
We were kids. On a scale of 1-10 we usually received scores in the “6-7” range. And we were pretty good. But we weren’t great.  Nadia was great, Nadia got high “9”s. Sometimes Nadia was really great and got a “9.8” or so. When she did, she won. First place. I never thought I would have to explain that winning meant 1st place, but now, I do because parents killed competition.

At this recent meet, the girls dressed in ornate leotards and had matching braided hairdos and hair accessories. They all looked so cute ….and alike. As they completed their routines, their scores flashed unceremoniously up on a lighted board and the parent in charge of keeping the scores jotted them down dutifully. They smiled back and forth as each girl finished, their scores flashed and the next event started. The scores were almost without exception in the high 9’s. They had to extend 3 digits past the decimal to differentiate one score from the next. I don’t recall seeing anything much below a 9. I saw little girls fall off balance beams, trip on their own feet and make many mistakes, however strangely the judges never seemed to see these.

Time for the award ceremony: the announcer began by announcing 10th place. Tenth place?! What happened to 1st, 2nd and 3rd ? The “ceremony” took forever to complete and the girls jumped up on the stage, lined up in order and did a little salute, all alike and then jumped back down. There was no discernable difference between winning 1st place and 10th place. None whatsoever as the girls jumped up, took their little token and jumped back down again. Void of pride or disappointment, void of joy, void of tears, void of feedback. Somewhere in the effort to prevent hurt feelings or some misguided attempt to build self-esteem, competition and all of its amazing lessons was murdered. Way to go parents and teachers. That’ll teach them.

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