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Monday, April 03, 2006

Competition

Softball started on Saturday. Since Luke will be seven in less than two weeks, he’s now in the older group of players. This apparently means they get more expensive uniforms and play something more like real games, as opposed to last year in the Instructional League, where kids hit the ball off a T, and parents hoped they ran in the right direction.

The parents in our neighborhood Instructional League are not too intense, at least not compared to stories you hear of crazy shouting sports parents. We have a friend who is a well respected soccer coach, and his wife says it’s all true, those stories about competitive parents screaming at the top of their lungs. Last year her husband the coach had to sit them down and have a talk.

There was a story about such parents this morning on our local NPR affiliate. Psychologist Dan Gottlieb was discussing the way parents project their insecurities onto their children, pushing them to win at all costs. The sport becomes so consuming, both in terms of time and money, that other activities have to be sacrificed. I’m aware in our own circle of how hard it is for families to have dinner together when children are being shuffled from activity to activity. Some elementary school teams have practice three or four times per week.

The radio piece pointed out that many kids ultimately quit team sports, saying that it is no longer fun, presumably because of the intensity of the competition. As a girl who loved playing hockey and lacrosse in high school, but who was never very good, I feel for those kids who just want to play. In fact with childhood obesity on the rise, there’s a strong case to be made for just letting them run around the field, even if they are running in the wrong direction.

What struck me about the radio piece this morning was the different values we have regarding competition. Dr. Gottlieb concluded by saying “average is not a four letter word,” but to many in our society, it is. Just the other day I was looking at a book by a conservative (sorry, can’t remember the name) about the ways liberals are screwing up the United States. One chapter was about sports teams that give out trophies to everyone, whether they win or not. The author was outraged that adults would reward participation, not just winning. To him, winning really was the most important thing.

I think it comes down to a question of what kind of society we want to create. Is being #1 what we value most? If so, then competition is what we should teach our children. But what if cooperation and compassion are our core values? Then let’s emphasize teamwork and give trophies to everyone.

The conservative writer was not wrong to pick trophies as a symbolic issue. Although it sounds like a stretch, I think the debate about trophies has global implications. Now that the United States is the only remaining Superpower, we have to rethink what being #1 means. Is holding onto our military and economic dominance the most important value of our country? If so, I fear we’re in for more wars over resources and regional dominance. But what if we value human teamwork and compassion? Then we’ll have to start paying attention to the two billion people on earth who live on less than two dollars per day, whether their economies are competitive or not. We’ll have to start paying attention to the twenty thousand people per day who die of hunger and poverty related problems. If every kid in softball deserves a trophy, doesn’t every kid on earth deserve a meal?

6 Comments:

Blogger elise said...

As an odd coincidence I recently wrote a post on my blog titled "Competition". Check it out if you want to see my view on it. I have a somewhat unorthodox take on it...

7:01 AM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks, Elise, as I said in my comment on your blog, I do think you make a good point about the role of beating someone else in competition.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Libby said...

I'm just so struck by your last line about trophies. What a stark and unarguable way to put it. Thank you.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

Great last line. But I have a different take on it. Not everyone deserves a trophy. Not every kid in class is friends with every other kid in class, so why does EVERY kid end up with exactly 22 identical Valentines? This insistance on being "fair" can make the entire thing bogus. I believe in cooperation and compassion, but not for rewarding kids just for breathing.

YES, every kid on earth deserves a meal, but not every kid deserves a trophy just for showing up and participating. It's totally meaningless.

11:09 AM  
Blogger naturalmom said...

I know trophies weren't really your point Eileen, but since we're on the subject, there is a third option. I think we should reconsider the role of rewards entirely. How about we all just enjoy the game and forget about trophies for anyone? It seems to me that in everything from birthday parties to preschool sports leagues, kids can now expect to get some sort of goodie just for showing up. I have *no* problem with making it equal for everyone, but I wonder why we think kids need so many "goodies" in the first place. Whatever happened to doing something for the pure enjoyment or even just because one should? This happens to be a little pet peeve of mine. :o)

I'm agree with you 100% on your main point. I think there is beginning to be a groundswell of people who are rethinking what it means to be #1. I just hope there are enough of us...

8:02 AM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

I totally agree with naturalmom. I revise my position: trophies for no one; meals for all!

I really struggle with all the junk my kids bring home from various places. Luke's birthday is coming up, so once again we have the dilemma of party favors. I keep telling other local mothers that I want us to band together and ban party favors entirely, but so far it hasn't happened. Some years I've tried giving out alternative gifts: flowers, seeds, stuff like that. But every year it seems to get harder to keep away from platic and candy. Thanks for the reminder, naturalmom.

11:24 AM  

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