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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When Did Competition Become A Dirty Word?

I saw this clip online this week:

"Louisville, KY (AP) - School districts in Kentucky are beginning to move away from naming valedictorians for graduating classes. Instead, districts plan to de-emphasize what could be seen as unhealthy competition and recognize all high achievers."

Excuse my sputtering, but when the hell did competition become "unhealthy"?

Right up front here: I was not valedictorian of my class. In fact, I was so far from valedictorian by my senior year in high school that if I'd studied 24 hours a day for nine months and paid a bribe to every school official it wouldn't have made a difference. I mention this to clarify that my sputtering isn't because I would have lost the valedictorian title had similar "idea" people come up with this scheme in 1974. While I wasn't a great student, I was a competitive one. Most of my good friends in those days were high-achievers, and because of those motivated kids in my life who were competing against each other, and because all of these friends were pursuing higher education, I ultimately woke up and excelled. In spite of so-so grades I managed to get myself accepted to college and was straight A by the end of my freshman year. After four years of competing with thousands of university students, I was a high B/low A. I was proud of my academic achievement and so were my parents. In my little world I had become a champion and it felt great to win. It still does.

Competition in my life has substantially contributed to who I am, starting with my father's high-spirited style of teaching games at which he never let me win. Dad's coaching me to compete was only the beginning. I went on from there to hard-won high school band and color guard performances thanks to character-building (and yes, often grueling) practice schedules set up by instructors who understood that sooner or later we would enter the real world, a world where life-changing competition reared its healthy head every single day in the form of customers, bosses, co-workers, husbands, wives, children, mortgages, and massive responsibility for all of the above. Even today competition is a constant in my life, whether in a golf tournament, a weekend card game with my family, or in meeting a client deadline...even if the "client" is me and the deadline is self-imposed.

Somewhere on this road we've lost our way. We give trophies to every kid so they "can feel good about themselves." Coaches advise athletes to "go easy" on the other team, and in one instance that I witnessed personally a junior high coach told a great soccer player to stop making goals because heaven forbid they should beat the other team too badly. Simon Cowell used to get grief on American Idol because he told tone deaf young people to give up on music, causing the astounded non-singer to stomp off and wail in his mother's arms, a mother who then turned to cameras and cussed Simon out for "abusing" a child who'd been told all his life he was a star.  

Of course we need to give our kids positive feedback, but not to the point where we convince them that they're entitled to win no matter how poorly they perform. Through the span of my life I've watched other kids win trophies, other students receive accolades, other bands take home the big prize, other golfers win tournaments, and other adults make more money and get better jobs. So far I've managed to resist jumping off the nearest cliff in despondency because I understand how life works: they performed better than I did, giving me the option to either try harder or be a good loser and say congratulations. What should not be an option is making the competition easier. If a kid is asked to run a mile instead of ten, guess what? She's going to run the mile and only the mile, and maybe not even that if she can get a trophy just for showing up.

Educators in Kentucky are not "de-emphasizing what could be seen as unhealthy competition," they're emphasizing...and proliferating...mediocrity. Kentuckians, pick up a thesaurus. Under competition you'll find such words as striving, and struggle, and trial, and contest, and fight, and opposition, all adjectives for situations we adults encounter every day. Educators should be teaching children how to cope with life, not giving a quick fix for kiddy confidence. Competition is not "unhealthy," and winning a trophy for doing nothing, or eliminating recognition for a top student in a class, does not build self worth. True self esteem comes from winning in a field of fierce and talented competitors who want to win as much as you do. That's how champions are born.

Hey Kentucky, have you ever seen The Incredibles? Great kid flick with a clear message: When everybody's a winner, nobody is.


14 comments:

Fran Goldsmith said...

Today is also the first day of Summer - and what is the deal with the eye???????

Anonymous said...

While I don't believe that a competition in any field is unhealthy, perhaps what these Kentuckians are saying is that, in the venue of a high school graduation, the highest GPA achieved in what are considered the most "academic" courses should not be awarded such supreme recognition.
If Susie has worked hard to develop her innate abilities at soccer, and has excelled in that field through the sacrifice of blood sweat and tears, why must she sit through a graduation ceremony that elevates the bookworm to most honored status? Or if not bookworm, the student naturally or unnaturally inclined to excel at math, science, language, etc. And what about the prodigal auto mechanic, who has demonstrated his particular genius in a curriculum designed to populate the workforce with skilled tradesmen and women?
I'm all for recognition of academic achievement, and for recognition of the 1st, 2nd, top 10 scholars. I'm not for trumpeting these achievements above all others at a high school graduation ceremony, while celebrating the wrestler, the tuba player, the thespian at supper ceremonies on Thursday nights.
The valedictory speech? How about the kid who is the best public speaker....or even better, the kid whose peers (the graduating class) vote the person they would most like to listen to?
With regard to your anecdote about the soccer coach, there is an unwritten rule in many sports that says one should not unduly humiliate an obviously inferior opponent, one should not "run up the score". In golf, your favorite sport I believe, the true opponent is oneself, ones natural tendency to drift from perfect concentration and hence from perfect alignment and form. A person's lust for self humiliation should never be denied, but crushing opponents in other sports, beyond the point of overwhelming victory, is widely considered bad form, and I suspect this is what your middle school soccer coach was trying to teach.

Kathleen Yasas said...

Dear Anonymous: Thanks for the thoughtful point-counterpoint response. Well said and all worth taking into consideration, although I maintain we aren't doing our kids justice by stripping the competitive edge. Re the junior high soccer coach, they actually weren't slaying the other team, but they were certainly winning because they were better. What I found sad was that this kid...truly a great player...was so frustrated when told he had to hold back. He wanted to show what he could do and was told not to perform at his best. For me, that's a problem. This particular school had a predetermined point spread. Again, encouraging mediocrity, not greatness.

Anonymous said...

Well, lets just say for the sake of argument that the coach may have been thinking that the star player needed to improve his passing and teamwork skills so that in the future, when playing with higher caliber mates, he was not sorely lacking in those skills and inclinations. So the kid was pissed that he was advised not to score goal after goal....half a kid's job is to be frustrated when given valuable advice. It's easier than the other half of the job, which is to follow it. It's also the job of the coach to see that his other players get to touch the ball occasionally, which might not often happen in a situation where a highly skilled player wants to "show what he can do". Of course the coach should explain these considerations to his "star" players at some point.

edsbath said...

It's great that Squawk...I mean, Squeaky, was inspired by the academics in her life, but I've gotta go along with A-non regarding the graduation ceremony (I know you didn't mention that in the blog, Squeak). If the readin', writin', 'rithemetikin' king or queen gets to stand up and preach some philosophy, then the best runner should get to circle the track while the best singer belts out the tune of her choosing as the best auto tech dude demonstrates the throaty roar of the engine he has tuned. The AP quote doesn't say "...recognize ALL as high achievers.", it says "...recognize ALL high achievers." Re. the soccer player....yes, it's a TEAM sport in JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL! Maybe Pele Jr. will come to understand that others must be educated at his expense. THAT will prepare him for adulthood.

Kathleen Yasas said...

Edsbath, I'm sure you do agree with A-non. You usually agree with anyone who disagrees with me.

mrEous said...

This is an awesome discussion! And what IS with that eye???? Cute doggy. What does cuckoo warning day mean?

mrEous said...

Anon....what do you mean by "prodigal auto mechanic"?

Kathleen Yasas said...

Cuckoo warning day...just another kooky holiday in America.

Anonymous said...

kid who wastes time tinkering/sarcasm,get it?/fail. I don't know what cuckoo warning day is, but it's over now so stand down. wtf does mrEous mean?

aeba1a32-4a73-11e0-aec0-000bcdcb2996 said...

MrEous = Mister Eous = Mysterious. Maybe?

A school is an academic environment. Why not acknowledge the student who has worked hard and achieved the highest marks in classes and assigned projects?

Band, sports, pep club, yearbook--those are all EXTRA-curricular activities.

edsbath said...

aeba...(I'm not even gonna try to make sense of YOUR sign in name)..you make a good point. Throw in a grading system that's not a sham for MANDATORY classes like Phys. Ed.,and you rule.






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Connie said...

edsbath, in my neck of the woods, the state only requires 1.5 credits of physical education for high schoolers compared to, say, 4 credits each for English and math. Phys. ed. would hardly affect a grade point average.

edsbath said...

Oh please....candidates for these honors are often scrapping down to the second or third decimal place of GPA.

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Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum