[Editor's note: This was originally published on October 10, 2006.]
Competition, whether in sport or life, is not a cause for alarm. The act of pitting faction against faction holds the power to unite strangers, spur achievement, and immortalize greatness.
Unfortunately, there is a movement afoot aimed at eliminating competition from youth sports.
Parents will not let their children be ranked, placed, medaled, or otherwise ordered. Their intentions are pure, but misguided. Insulating children from the rigors of competition spares them the grief of defeat because they never lose.
Of course, they never win either. They're supplied with plastic trophies and cheap medallions--all marked "Participant"--which they quickly and dismissively add to a growing pile of worthless childhood artifacts.
Children are not stupid. They are also supremely skilled at imitation. They know they are being insulated at the behest of their parents, and they quickly assimilate this thought pattern. If it's good enough for Mommy, it's good enough for me. Repeat after me: 'If I never compete, I never lose."
As horrible as this sounds, it merely masks the true message, "It is not okay to fail."
By telling our children that competition is bad, we tell them that failing is bad. Every parent on earth would love to see their child finish first in everything--spelling bees, bake-offs, track meets, and academic rankings. The reality is that only one child in hundreds of thousands is capable of this level of achievement, and he or she is probably miserable. Every type-A parent knows this, and seeks to insulate their child rather than create a teenage burnout.
I see the after-effects of this societal predilection all the time. It manifests itself in the gym with excuses and abject refusals to compete. Athletes thwart their own progress with ready-made safety switches.
"My legs hurt I hate this I'm no good at I didn't sleep I can't I'm having a bad day."
Again, the implied message is, "I'm afraid to fail." The built-in excuse provides an explicit reason for athletic failure, immediately precluding the possibility that half-assed training and poor nutrition are responsible.
As athletes, we need to give ourselves permission to fail. We must remove personal self-worth from every push-up, pull-up, and squat. The ability to look at these things objectively, to laugh at our foibles, is critical to continual progress. When we give ourselves permission to fail, we also grant ourselves permission to compete. We free ourselves to give everything we have to an effort and have it come up short.
We cannot turn a blind eye to the existence of competition, shielding our children and our athletes from the harsh reality of the world. As adults, we are required to compete every day for jobs, spouses, recognition, and influence. One day, our children will be adults, drastically ill prepared for the rigors of the real world due to idiotic parental policies.
Competition should be embraced, with all its virtues and faults. It makes us better human beings, driving self-improvement with unmatched efficacy. It only does so when we recognize its true nature and give ourselves permission to fail.
Tomorrow brings another competition, another workout, and another chance to be the best. Grab it with both hands.
Jon Gilson is the owner of Again Faster. Photo courtesy of Patrick Cummings.