Saturday, November 24, 2012
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
The System’s not Just Broken—It’s Fatally Flawed
We hear it everywhere: “The educational system’s broken," "The financial system’s broken," and most recently, "The political system’s broken.” The unpleasant truth, though, is that these systems aren’t just broken, because that would mean that they could be repaired; rather, the core principle upon which each is founded has been fatally flawed from the beginning! Each system is part of our larger competitive-based society. The problems we are seeing today are not abnormalities, but are the natural culmination of working from a competitive model. This is simply how a competitive system plays itself out, over the long term.
Obviously, we live in a competitive world. Us versus them. Me versus you. Look how huge sports are today, from Pop Warner to the NFL, etc., etc., etc., plus business, education, relationships, politics, and religion. It’s all about competition, all the time. Life is literally one big contest!
Yes, there are aspects to competition that can be a positive motivation for some people, but for many others, the negative side effects greatly outweigh those positives. We are taught and encouraged to be competitive from our earliest days. And, as hard as it might be to believe, most of the seemingly intractable problems we are facing now can be traced to this competitive mentality. When you have a system that promotes as its central belief what psychologist Alfie Kohn called, “mutually exclusive goal attainment,” i.e., "I can’t win unless you lose" -- well, at some point serious problems will arise. And we're at that point right now.
But don’t worry; we don’t need to eliminate competition altogether, because it has its place. Competition just can’t be the cornerstone of the system. Competition is the advanced part of any sport, subject, or activity, not something that beginners or people who don’t know what they’re doing should engage in. Currently, we throw people who have no skill development into competition, and then we’re puzzled when only a small percentage succeeds. It’s important to understand that in any contest, no matter how poorly the participants perform, someone will always be declared the winner. What does this prove? Only that this competitive system is not about creating excellence, it's about winning. How can we expect people to do well at something when they have no training? Yet we do have that unrealistic expectation, and that’s an enormous part of the problem.
If we look at the results objectively, the competitive system is a failure; nearly 50 percent of the world’s population lives on less than three dollars a day, and 80 percent lives on less than ten dollars a day. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day of hunger and malnutrition. One billion people are illiterate and another billion don’t have access to clean drinking water. Each year hundreds of thousands of people are casualties of violence, abuse, and war. And in this country, how many millions are undereducated? What kind of results are these? Either we are a mediocre, uncaring species, or we need to develop another model that will produce better results.
Many people are working incredibly hard today trying to get ahead and “make it” in this system, but they aren’t succeeding. We'd rather ignore these facts and believe that hard work always pays off. If you are someone who has become successful through hard work and luck (yes, luck also plays an important role), it’s difficult to believe that there are problems with the system. But by its very nature, the competitive system is designed for only a small percentage to succeed. Although most workers religiously support the system, holding out hope that some day it will be their turn to be wealthy, let’s be honest; that rarely happens. In a system based on a competitive model, there’s clearly not enough for everyone to have enough to survive and thrive.
Just because it’s commonly assumed that being competitive with each other is the best way to attain excellence and success doesn’t mean it’s true. The reality is that it’s impossible to achieve our potential by competing against each other. We can attain high levels of performance in a competitive system, but we can’t reach our potential. How can we be our best when our adversary is doing everything in his or her power to keep us from achieving our goal? A competitive-based system, you see, actually prevents us from being our best. Only by working together can we achieve our potential.
Being a winner is seen as the be-all and end-all of existence. People parrot the common refrain, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose; it's how you play the game,” and while this is a nice sentiment, all we have to do is look around and see that, no matter how hard we try to spin it, it actually does matter if we win or lose. The winners get the lion’s share, while the losers get only crumbs.
Being a winner is great! I’ve never met anyone who likes to lose, but the myriad negative side effects of a system based on a competitive model are evident all around us today. Lying, cheating, stealing, bullying, scamming, fear-mongering, diminished performance and potential, racism, greed, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, ignorance, and war, to name a few, lead inevitably to the conclusion that the basis of our system is fatally flawed. This competitive foundation is the system’s Achilles heel.
The critical reason why the competitive system is fatally flawed is that its design creates a dynamic by which each generation has to be more competitive than the previous generation, not to achieve excellence, but simply to keep up. Yes, it’s important to strive to be our best, but why do we believe that that goal is best accomplished in a competitive environment? We believe it because we’ve been taught and conditioned to believe it.
Think about this: the underlying philosophy of how we perceive reality makes it necessary for each generation to work harder, to be more competitive in order to surpass the achievements of previous generations. One generation does X, but then the next generation has to do X-plus—and so it goes, generation after generation. While it is good to try and go beyond prior generations, it is the competitive mentality that is problematic.
Sports, politics, and education provide clear examples of this increasing intensiveness and competitiveness. It’s true in all sports, but let’s use soccer to highlight the difference between today and twenty years ago. To play college soccer today, kids have to get on traveling squads at an early age, play year-round, and practice many hours every week, for a minimum of six years. In politics, if you wish to run for state or national office today, you need millions of dollars to have any chance of winning. In education, parents jockey for position to ensure that their kids get into the best preschools. And high school kids who want to attend the most prestigious universities have to work at their studies virtually non-stop; even then, there is no guarantee they will be accepted into their school of choice.
This is the nature of a competitive system. But to function at our peak, it's essential that we have significant amounts of “down time” where we get to relax, goof off, or ponder the bigger questions of existence; few are getting enough of this down time. Today, even if you’re lazy, it takes a lot just to get by.
While this competitive approach has increased performance levels at the high end, it comes at a great cost. The relevant questions are, “How much more competitive can we be? When does the stress of this unrealistic expectation begin producing more negative results than positive results? Have we already reached that point?” The pace and intensity of daily life has accelerated dramatically in the last forty years. This is why we see and experience so much worry, stress, fear, anger, aggression, despair, and aberrant behavior all around us. People are freaking out, both quietly and not so quietly! And with our current system, it's easy to understand why.
A competitive system teaches us, as its not-so-subtle message, that others are against us, are our enemies, and will pose obstacles to our goals. Where did this commonly accepted wisdom, that we need an adversary in order to be our best, come from? Such an approach makes it impossible for us to learn to work together to solve our collective problems. This is our dilemma; instead of being taught to trust each other and see others as partners and allies, with whom we need to cooperate to create a better, more humane world, we’ve been encouraged to fight against and be suspicious of others, try to get the better of them and thereby demonstrate our superiority. What a sad, low level of consciousness!
Although many people feel in their gut that something’s really wrong in our world today, it’s difficult to identify the source. Whether you consider yourself a conservative, a liberal, or a moderate, there’s a real sense of unease. That’s how I’ve been feeling since the 1960s. I spent over forty years trying to understand what’s going on in this crazy world. About ten years ago, the core issue finally came into focus.
Even if you’re doing very well financially, are you fully enjoying your life? Are there times when it’s hard to enjoy all your success when you realize how many people are still suffering? If you’re busy trying to keep your head above the rising tide, or spending all your time trying to out-compete everyone by proving that you are worthy of being Number One, or you just want to bury your head in the sand and ignore what’s going on, please look around. Realize that our world is in big trouble. If one person suffers, we all suffer. We can no longer blame and scapegoat a few “bad apples” or “weak links” for our problems. These are the predictable outcomes created by a competitive system; it’s high time we found a better model.
The mindset created by our highly competitive system is a vital issue for our times, one with profound implications for our long-term survival. Only by working together will we ever realize our potential as a species and solve our collective problems. So, while it’s great to see our team beat the other team and experience the “thrill of victory,” our competitive obsession is actually limiting our performance, potential, compassion, vision, enjoyment, and most importantly, our ability to solve our problems.
I’m sorry if the subject of this article makes some of you uncomfortable, but I believe that if we are going to survive, thrive, and evolve to higher levels of consciousness, where we can finally attain our amazing potential and help everyone have a better life, then we need to talk about changing the foundation of our system. Think how amazing we could be if we were all on the same team! Hard to imagine, no?
Working together to solve our collective problems will be very effective; cooperation is just as natural as competition. In his last book, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin concluded that the evolution of humankind succeeded, not as he first thought, through a "survival of the fittest" mentality, but through altruism and love, the essential glue that binds human beings together in family and community.
We need to come together to figure how to create an excellence-based, cooperative system, with competition as one aspect. This model will help many more people realize their potential, become more productive members of society, and enjoy their lives more fully. What better outcome could we ask for?
Since we’ve been so deeply programmed to be competitive for such a long time, changing to a cooperative-based system will take a lot of work and several generations to implement. There are no quick fixes to our problems. But if we are to have any chance to create long-term solutions, changing to a cooperative system is essential. It’s not going to be easy at first, but if we “stay the course” with the competitive-based system, it's certain that things will continue to deteriorate. Becoming a society that works together instead of competes against each other is long overdue; we owe that to future generations.
Thanks for your time and consideration,
Copy Editor: Linda Jay Geldens, LindaJay@aol.com
Thursday, June 23, 2011
As teachers, coaches and parents we all want what’s best for our students and children. My questions to you are: Does putting them into competition before they are prepared help accomplish this goal? Might the premature introduction of competition into the learning process inhibit performance, sow the seeds of stress and performance anxiety, limit long-term potential, and also increase the possibility of developing unhealthy behaviors such as aggression, fear, choking, making excuses, cheating, or quitting?
Competition is an advanced aspect of any subject, sport, or activity, not something to be engaged in by beginners or people who don’t have the fundamental skills. Introducing competition before people are ready for it, no matter how “low key” or “innocent” it seems, creates many problems. It’s been accepted wisdom by competitive people that the best way to prepare children for the real world is to make them compete against each other as soon as possible, but for most, the research proves the contrary.
Until people can demonstrate competence in the physical, mental, and emotional fundamentals, there’s no good reason for injecting competition into academics, sports, or any other activity. From my long involvement in education, the early introduction of competition does far more harm than good. Even for the ones who do well, there are psychological consequences. I know this is blasphemy to many, but the evidence can no longer be ignored. Too few people truly excel in a competitive system.
I grew up as a competitive athlete, being quite successful in the difficult sport of tennis. I graduated from a prestigious college, and have been a professional tennis teacher and coach for 36 years, with well over 25,000 hours of teaching and coaching experience. For the last 25 of those years I’ve had serious reservations about the competitive system that we all live in and many worship.
Eighteen years ago I removed all competition from my tennis program, Effortless Tennis, the results of which prompted me to write, Evolutionary Education: Moving Beyond Our Competitive Compulsion published in 2007. I now understand why so few excel in a competitive system; we educate people by throwing them into competition before they’ve learned any of the fundamental skills. We’ve been conditioned to compete in almost every thing we do, in a “trial by fire” or as I call it, the “throw-the-baby-into-the-deep-end of-the-pool” theory of learning. We rush people into competition, assuming that this approach results in excellence, but for most it’s a recipe for mediocrity and/or failure.
The reason why putting people into competition prematurely is so problematic, is that once competition is introduced into the equation, the goal changes from learning skills to trying to win, or at least trying not to lose. We all know how important it is to be seen as a winner. With their egos and self-esteem on the line, the need to win distracts students from mastering the essential skills required for success. This is a shortsighted approach.
So, to all teachers and coaches, no matter how noble your motives and good your heart, if you are having your students compete before they “own” the skills of your particular subject, sport, or activity, you are limiting their performance and potential, diminishing their enjoyment of the learning process, undermining their self-confidence and psychological health, and denying them the chance to discover the importance of intrinsic motivation. How many of your students actually excel? It’s likely only a small number, most don’t. Is this because you’re a bad teacher or coach, or could it be the system?
Parents too are complicit in this damaging process if they encourage their children to be competitive or put them into competition before they’ve learned the basic skills. If you really want to help your students and children be their best, remove all competition—until they can demonstrate competence in the physical and psychological fundamentals.
What I’m saying is not radical. It’s common sense!
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
It is commonly accepted wisdom that education is the key to a better future. Yet most people feel that there is a crisis in education. Each person has his or her solutions for this crisis, but I believe that few people have been able or are willing to recognize the underlying core issue with this educational crisis.
In 1988, after twenty years of learning and playing the sport of tennis, and 14 years of teaching it to thousands of students, I had a simple realization: The introduction of competition before we achieve proficiency in the fundamental physical, mental and emotional skills, compromises all aspects of the learning process. Like many realizations, mine was a dawning awareness of a truth dimly intuited for years that in retrospect seemed obvious. Like most people, I had believed in the value of competition without ever questioning it. It was how I had been taught, was all I had ever known, and everyone I knew believed it too. But when my perspective changed, I saw that my experience had been teaching me the opposite of my belief the whole time.
Although there is widespread recognition of the many problems in our educational system, there is little recognition or acknowledgement of what I now see as our educational system’s fatal flaw – the competitive model on which it is based. While people all across the political and educational spectrum agree that our educational system is flawed and propose various, often contradictory, solutions, almost all affirm the value and necessity of competition in the learning process.
Competitive learning is widespread and routine in our educational system. In almost every school, sport, subject and skill, beginning students are thrown prematurely into some form of competition, long before they have even approached basic competence. Competition is often introduced at the very start of a student’s involvement with a subject or activity.
In every subject children are given new material to learn and are often tested and graded the next day. Within a few weeks of practice in academics or sports, long before they have achieved basic proficiency, children find themselves competing against each other for “practice” or for coveted positions. One common result of being thrust into premature competition is that performance anxiety is programmed into our cellular memory.
Our collective faith in the competitive system is conditioned and inherited, not based in objective evidence. The belief that a competitive learning environment is the ideal learning environment doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. It is based on an implausible argument that the pressure and stress of competition, the fear of the consequences of losing, the aggressive striving against others, and the desire for the rewards of winning, somehow focuses attention, ignites motivation, develops strength, builds character, and produces excellence. Yet this belief is built on denial and rationalization, for it ignores the negative impact and consequences of premature competition on a majority of children and adult students.
After my epiphany in 1988, I reexamined my lifelong experience as a student, competitor and teacher. I noticed the now apparent flaws and fallacies of the competitive model, and came to an obvious and logical conclusion: The prevalence of competition in the learning process is the primary reason that most people do not achieve true excellence, mastery, or fulfill their potential in school, sports, music, and almost every other field of learning. The skills developed in a competitive system occur despite rather than because of competition. Competition has motivated a small percentage of people to great accomplishment. But much of that motivation comes from an unhealthy emphasis on winning, fear of losing, and an immature self-esteem derived from defeating others and thereby gaining status. Rather than producing the highest level of skill among the greatest number of people, competition produces a majority of “losers”, and a handful of “winners” of inconsistent ability, unfulfilled potential, and relative immaturity.
After teaching tennis to thousands of students and observing the competitive system for more than forty years, I have found that the competitive approach only works for a small percentage of people, and not necessarily the most talented. Those who “succeed” often do so at great cost to others as well as themselves. Every winner at the top of the heap leaves behind a trail of “losers” and wounded egos. Many “winners” succeed by adopting unhealthy perspectives, behaviors, and strategies that create disharmony and hostility with others, and undermine their own mental and emotional development and wellbeing. Our competitive system’s skewed perspective that “winning is everything”, subtly and often overtly encourages an unbalanced, unhealthy approach.
If we objectively examine the real and alleged benefits of our competitive educational system, we see that it does not live up to its hype. Introducing competition into the learning process is often stressful and counter-productive, causing far more harm than good. For a majority of students a competitive learning environment does not increase motivation, improve performance, or support healthy emotional development. It interferes with concentration and diminishes enjoyment, performance and motivation. It is disruptive to learning and makes achieving excellence and mastery more difficult. Premature competition introduces conflict and performance anxiety into the learning process, while tacitly encouraging cheating and other forms of “poor sportsmanship”. The “doping” scandals in almost every professional sport, and the cheating scandals that occur annually in many colleges, universities, and even high schools, are examples. All these things undermine self-esteem, healthy character development and interpersonal relations.
When competition is introduced into the learning process, learning becomes a contest. The focus and emphasis shift from learning, to winning and the fear of losing or failing. When winning is over-emphasized, and “losing” is demonized, the entire process of learning, playing, performing, etc., is seen through a distorted, anxiety-producing lens. The learning process is contaminated by the desire to win (rather than to learn and achieve excellence) and to be seen as a winner, as well as by fears of losing and being seen as a loser. Yet these unhealthy aspects of the competitive model are often ignored, denied, rationalized, and even made to seem “positives”.
My experience and observation have shown me that the premature introduction of competition into the learning process produces far more negative than positive effects and impedes rather than enhances learning and performance levels. In fact, if competition were a drug, the Food and Drug Administration would ban it for its adverse side effects!
A significant factor in the longevity and dominance of the competitive system is cellular memory, the automatic neural patterning of actions and behaviors into our subconscious, our brain, and every cell in our body. Cellular memory is how we learn and retain information. It is how we are able to function effectively and survive. Whatever we repeat in thought, emotion and action, is etched in our cellular memory and becomes instinctive habit. Cellular memory is what causes us to repeat habitual, non-productive, and even self-destructive behaviors. Over time we all program negative behaviors – I call them, less-than-optimal responses— into our cellular memory. Once actions, behaviors, and emotional responses are etched in our cellular memory, it is difficult to “unlearn” them.
Although at this time there is no scientific link, from my life-long observations of human behavior, I believe that over thousands of years, competitive behavior has been deeply wired into individual and collective cellular memories, into our genes, and passed on from generation to generation. That most people find it difficult to imagine an alternative to competitive behavior shows how deeply programmed this belief has become. Psychologist Alfie Kohn points to this conditioned cellular memory via “socialization” when he writes, “That most of us fail to consider the alternatives to competition is a testament to the effectiveness of our socialization. We have been trained not only to compete but to believe in competition.” And sociologist David Riesman writes, “First we are systematically socialized to compete — and to want to compete — and then the results are cited as evidence of competition’s inevitability.”
Yet we can use this powerful learning tool of cellular memory to repattern old, negative, conditioned habits of thinking and behavior with new, healthy, productive habits.
I do not suggest eliminating competition. I am arguing against its premature introduction into the learning process. I am asking if it is wise and effective to force children into competition while they are learning, before they achieve basic proficiency. Competition can now take its rightful place as an advanced aspect of any activity. Until we have developed essential physical, mental, and emotional skills, we are not ready to compete. Until then, competition interferes with the learning process and diminishes our chances of achieving proficiency, and even emotional maturity.
I’ve heard it argued that if we had to master the fundamentals before competing, it would take years to get to the point where we are ready to compete. This is true. But it only seems like a bad idea from the competitive perspective. The bright side of developing proficiency before competing is that it dramatically increases our development of all-around skills, including physical proficiency, intellectual comprehension, mental concentration, character development, emotional maturity and more.
Today the negative effects of competition shape and define nearly every aspect of modern life, including education, religion, politics, personal and international relations, sports, news, business, and most of popular culture. Many fundamental societal problems arise and are passed on in the way we teach and learn; that introducing competition into every facet of our lives undermines our ability to attain excellence, and perpetuates the very problems that we as individuals and cultures seek so desperately to resolve. The competitive mindset into which we are all indoctrinated prevents us from questioning the validity of the competitive system, or recognizing or acknowledging its devastating effects on individuals and society.
We need to reexamine competition, to see where and when it is useful, and where and when it creates problems. The next evolution in learning will occur in a healthier cooperative model with a skill-to-mastery based focus. Rather than encouraging students to compete with one another for grades, prizes and status, it will facilitate deeper learning, intellectual acuity, emotional maturity, and a genuine self-esteem derived from excellence and mastery. It will raise the overall level of skill, knowledge, and creativity, and allow everyone, from the least to the most talented, to fulfill his or her potential and contribute to the whole.
What I am proposing isn’t theoretical, pie-in-the-sky conjecture. Viable skill-based non-competitive learning programs exist. In the Kumon Method students learn at an individual pace and advance only after mastering each level. Since October of 1992, I have been teaching the highly competitive sport of tennis in a non-competitive/cooperative format that I call Effortless Learning (I started teaching tennis in 1974). As with the Kumon Method, the focus is on mastering the fundamentals at each level before moving to the next. Instead of competing against one another, students help one another to learn through cooperative practice that supports mutual development of essential physical, mental, and emotional skills and greater enjoyment of the game itself. Eighteen years and over twenty thousand hours of on-court observation, with more than a thousand students, has proven to me that a non-competitive learning system makes it easier to master the basics, attain higher levels of skill, and become more balanced and well-rounded human beings in the process. And this approach also increases success in competition.
A non-competitive learning system develops concentration, relaxation, emotional maturity, healthy camaraderie, and fundamental skills. By emphasizing enjoyment of an activity and the learning process for their own sakes, and de-emphasizing the importance of winning, losing, and external rewards, it diminishes negative emotional states and behaviors. Children especially thrive in a non-competitive learning environment, and naturally develop the fundamental skills without the unpleasant stresses and emotions inevitably triggered by premature competition.
It can take time for adults who have internalized the competitive mind-set, due to long-term immersion in it, to stop judging themselves and competing against others as they learn and grow. But I have seen many raised in the competitive system experience a sense of psychological relief in a non-competitive learning environment, as if a huge weight had been lifted from their shoulders. They become able, often for the first time in their lives, to relax in a learning situation and experience the satisfaction and enjoyment of developing skills, competence, and confidence without worrying about winning or losing.
Competition may be part of human nature, but it need not dominate human nature and conduct. By adopting cooperative, non-competitive, skill-to-mastery based models of teaching, learning and living, we can all rise above the limitations of our competitive system and fulfill our greater potential as individuals and as a species.
Friday, May 14, 2010
In a competitive society we are often expected or told to “be confident” even before we know what we are doing. It’s good to have confidence in our ability to learn. But how can we be confident, especially in competition, before we’ve really learned the basic skills? True confidence doesn’t come from false bravado, but from hard-earned proficiency and the knowledge that we have the skills necessary to succeed. And whether we’re children or adults, when we haven’t developed these skills, that little voice inside us knows, and tells us, that we don’t know what we’re doing.
Performance anxiety occurs when we’re put into competition before developing a deep inner confidence in our skills and ourselves. If we haven’t adequately developed the necessary physical, mental, and emotional skills in a cooperative environment, it’s almost impossible to develop secure confidence or perform at our highest level in competition. There’s always another contest and even if we won the last one, there’s still someone wanting to beat us in the next one, and the next, and the next. Watch people compete at any level, in any endeavor, and you will often see performance anxiety manifest. Experienced competitors are often better at dealing with or masking their anxiety, but even the best often tighten up or “choke” when the pressure is on.
In general, everyone has some performance anxiety potential, even five- and six-year-olds. It seems to be a natural aspect of the human condition, and it may be connected to our innate fight-or-flight response, hardwired in the limbic brain. But I have come to the conclusion that most of performance anxiety is artificially induced. It only seems natural in a highly competitive culture where nearly everyone is thrust prematurely into competitive situations.
Early experiences of failing or losing under pressure etch the first traces of performance anxiety deep within our emotional cellular memory, and in our subconscious mind. Present performance anxiety is intrinsically related to past experiences of failure in learning or performance situations. And once this anxiety is ingrained in our cellular memory, it often remains as an inhibiting response to perceived pressure long after we stop competing.
Choking is the ultimate expression of performance anxiety. Sports provide the clearest examples of choking, but it occurs in all areas of life. In 1993, tennis professional Jana Novotna, lost a match she was dominating in the finals at Wimbledon. She was about to ascend to the pinnacle of tennis, when she missed an easy shot. She started thinking about that error and ended up “losing it,” missing shot after shot, including several easy ones. After the match, she was crying on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder. Novotna was one of the best players in the world at the time, and yet she completely choked and lost all confidence in her skills. This response was the result of previous experiences earlier in her life. (She eventually redeemed herself by winning Wimbledon in 1998.) This is not an atypical example. In fact, it is quite common.
The 2005 U.S. Open Women’s Golf Championships was more of a Greek battlefield than a golf tournament. Annika Sorenstam dramatically blew her chance to win her third major tournament of the year on the way to winning the grand slam (all four majors for the year). No player, man or woman, has ever won all four of golf’s major championships in one year. Having won the first two majors that year, Sorenstam was heavily favored to win this tournament also. But with all the hype around her possibly winning golf’s grand slam, she tightened up and choked it away.
In the same tournament, Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie, two of golf’s new stars, also choked their chances of a title. At the top of the leader board going into the final round – Wie in the lead and Creamer one stroke behind – by the end of the day Creamer had gone eight strokes over par and Wie was eleven over. Lorena Ochoa, in the same tournament, was two strokes out of the lead until, at the last hole, she shot a quadruple bogey eight and dropped far out of contention. In October that same year another top pro golfer, John Daly, about to win a pro tournament in San Francisco, missed two three-foot putts and fell by the wayside. These disastrous chokes are common to professionals in every competitive field. Again, it can be argued that even at the highest levels, more competitions are lost rather than won.
Choking is not due to some mysterious “fatal flaw” in our character, but to patterns etched into our cellular memory through past experiences in competitive situations for which we were truly unprepared. In our culture, we are all put into competition before we have learned the mental and emotional skills to keep us from choking. Put in situations too advanced for our skill level, before we have mastered the fundamentals, we make inevitable critical mistakes that mark us as “losers”. Such common scenarios, repeated over time, program deep inner self-doubts into our cellular memory that often prevent us from performing at our full potential.
Motivates Through External Rewards
To compete, most people require some form of external reward, even if it is only the recognition of being the winner. This starts off innocently enough in children’s games where we are often bribed to compete; offered a soda or some paltry reward if we are the winner. Early on in school, we often compete for a teacher’s gold stars. From there it goes on – the quest for A’s in school, trophies in sports, big bonuses in business, and status in society.
In America it is increasingly difficult to motivate children without offering some external reward. They often want to know what they are going to get before agreeing to do what you ask them to do, having been conditioned to respond this way by virtually every aspect of society. This is prevalent in school, in athletics, and at home. Parents often motivate children to perform tasks, from cleaning their rooms to doing their homework, by offering some form of reward. In my tennis program, some children have asked me what are they going to get if they do what I’m asking. I tell them they’re going to become good tennis players, but that is usually not the answer they’re looking for. This aspect of the competitive system – using external rewards (bribes) as motivation – results in many children losing the ability to motivate themselves simply for the enjoyment of doing the activity itself. They become conditioned to expect external rewards.
This mercenary mentality has also contaminated the world of professional sports. How many professional athletes would put in the countless hours of grueling training and work if there were no giant carrot dangling in front of them? Many athletes are now more consumed with the carrot than with the love of their game. It is arguably the same in almost every competitive industry, from sports, to the arts, to technology and business. When external rewards and punishments become the main motivators in any game or contest, the competitors become mercenaries.
Americans work harder, and longer, with less enjoyment, than citizens in most other developed countries. Many people do become highly successful in our competitive system, often at the expense of a healthy and balanced character and personal life. Successful people must work hard to maintain their lifestyle. Sixty to eighty hour weeks are not uncommon in many top professional echelons. (It takes a lot of effort to make a lot of money and then keep track of it.) Desire for material rewards and prestige, and fear of failure are less-than-optimal motivations. As primary motivations, they don’t produce psychological health or the best long-term results in the development of character.
On the other end of the economic scale, the poor, and increasingly the middle-class, must work as hard, or harder, just to survive, pay for their homes and raise their children. Many work two or three jobs, sixty or more hours a week at minimum wage. Whether rich or poor, most people are constantly on the go, trying to get ahead within our competitive system. The weekly schedule of any family includes one activity after another, from the moment they wake up to the minute they go to bed. Weekends often cram as many fun activities into two days as possible, and frequently include children’s sporting events or performances. There is little time for the downtime so vital for our overall development and well being; the time when we can quietly contemplate the bigger questions of existence and get perspective on our own life or the world at large.
Competition can elicit camaraderie through teamwork, but it also stimulates and provokes conflict. In subtle and not so subtle ways, we are taught to cooperate with and respect the players on our team, and to regard the other side as enemies. Yet even among teammates there is a constant battle to get ahead. We often compete against our teammates for a chance to stand in the lineup or get more playing time. Camaraderie, team spirit, and bonding reside in constant tension with the competitive desire to be number one.
As in war, to see our opponents as human beings is considered weakness. It diminishes the “killer attitude” so highly regarded in competition. This explains why verbal aggression and trash talk are rampant in sports. Look at the common sports vocabulary. We “beat the hell out of,” “crush,” “destroy,” and “kill” our opponents. We call them bums or losers, pussies or faggots, to anger and distract them and lower their self-confidence. Many players frequently taunt their own teammates in the same fashion.
The higher the stakes, the greater the frequency and intensity of such hostile/aggressive behavior. Examples include late hits in football, cheap shots in hockey and basketball, and baseball pitchers purposely trying to hit batters in order to intimidate them. And legendary race car driver, Dale Earnhardt, was called The Intimidator for good reason.
We have all seen reports on the correlation between aggressiveness in athletics being tied to aggressive behavior outside the athletic arena. This behavior is not coincidental. Our competitive system exerts ever-increasing pressure to win on people at higher levels. Where does it end? How many hours can someone work or practice? How much stress can someone endure without cracking? How much needless stress is added by an imbalanced emphasis on winning, and an unhealthy scorn for losing? Perhaps a more cooperative, excellence oriented focus in the early stages of learning would allow us all to accomplish a lot more, with a lot less stress.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
When we are put into competition too soon, we try everything we can to win, because that’s the goal. But we often forget our basic skills and unconsciously resort to ineffective reactions. This is very apparent in people who start playing competitive tennis before they’ve developed their fundamental physical skills. Almost immediately, the correct form they’ve been practicing degenerates until they look more like they are fending off an attacker than playing tennis. It’s not a pretty sight. Unfortunately, whatever we are doing (and what we are feeling) is being programmed into our cellular memory, to become ingrained habit. Inadequate preparation of basic skills, combined with competition, limits our skill development, and increases the development of bad habits. We may do relatively well initially with inadequate skills, but eventually it works against us.
Ideally we will go back and develop the pieces that we missed. But this doesn’t always happen. Learning a second language provides an apt example here. If we are rushing through the learning process, it is easy to pattern grammatically incorrect sentence structure or inappropriate use of a word into our cellular memory. Someone may be able to understand our meaning, but our statements lose some of their power. Undoing a negative pattern takes far more effort than learning correctly from the start. Inadequate preparation of basic skills is a big problem in most people’s development across all disciplines. Once again, trying to win trumps learning the skills.
Cultivates Winning Without Skill
In every contest there is a winner. In a few cases there is a draw. But being declared a winner doesn’t mean you have developed proper skills or achieved competence, let alone mastery. Participants competing prematurely in any sport or endeavor exhibit more luck than ability, and certainly very little skill. In fact, most contests are lost, not won; they are decided by the loser making too many errors. Yet someone still gets the reward of being called the winner.
Even at the professional level, contests are commonly marred by less-than-optimal play and behavior. (In Chapter 5, I’ll explain why I prefer the term less-than-optimal instead of bad). All too often, even professional athletes play well below their abilities — a baseball or football player dropping an easy catch, a basketball player missing an open shot, a tennis player missing an easy volley, or a soccer or hockey player not scoring a goal on a one-on-one break. At the 2004 French Open Women’s Championships Venus Williams lost a match by making eighty-seven (!) unforced errors out of a total of one hundred points that she lost. Venus is a great tennis player, but her performance that day was pure mediocrity. Her opponent won only thirteen points in the entire match on her own. Yet she “won” the match.
Why do professional athletes tighten up, lose concentration, and miss easy shots that, at their level, they should not miss? In most sports there are situations where events are almost completely within our control. In tennis, it is the serve; we have the ball in our hands. In basketball it is the free throw; no one is blocking our shot. And professionals have been practicing these shots for years, probably tens of thousands of times. Yet even professionals frequently miss in these unchallenged moments. Clearly the problem is between their ears, and ingrained in their cellular memories. To me such incidents illustrate that even top athletes have been limited by premature competition. Their basic psychological skills are underdeveloped.
Produces Low Percentage of Good Players
One of the biggest problems in a competitive system is that far too few players or participants really develop high-level skills or the emotional maturity that true mastery requires. Let me give an example from my own experience. I have been teaching tennis to high-school boys and girls for thirty years. Surprisingly, I have observed that less than 10 percent become genuinely good players. The first reason for this is that most participants play tennis only during the high-school tennis season. Perhaps one-third play a little during the rest of the year. The majority are too busy with other sports, other activities, or schoolwork to find the time to play all year. It is hard to excel at something when you don’t maintain a consistent regimen. But in my experience, the main reason for mediocrity is that these kids are focused on winning before they have acquired the skills to play well. Some play for their school teams for four years, yet remain mediocre. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is the same with many team sports; there are a few stars, and the rest of the players just fill positions.
This tendency toward mediocrity doesn’t just apply to children. I have been teaching and observing adult tennis players for nearly forty years. Most people who play the game for many years don’t improve that much. They tend to plateau and stay at the same level no matter how many years they play. The reason is simple. Most people who play tennis go out on the court, warm up for ten minutes, and start competing. They don’t practice their basic skills; they just play matches. Playing this way ingrains poor physical, mental and emotional habits that limit their potential. They think they are only going to improve by competing, yet they never make much progress, and they don’t understand why. This tendency toward a minority of excellence and a majority of mediocrity occurs in almost every area of endeavor where competition reigns, from school to sports to business to politics.
Beats Down the Naturals
Wanting to do our best is a noble goal. But the side effects of a competitive system significantly diminish our chances of attaining this goal. The people we compete against do everything in their power to keep us from doing our best. They want to beat us. They don’t want us to play our best—unless they still win. This is how the competitive system works.
Some people are naturally gifted; certain abilities come more easily to them. In our competitive system, people with less natural talent are encouraged to do whatever it takes to beat the more naturally talented people. This may include questionable tactics, such as physical or psychological intimidation; or even cheating. When someone has a natural gift, it would be wise to fully support their development as they have the potential to raise the bar to higher levels. But this is not what is promoted in a competitive system. Some of these “naturals” however, also do their best to beat down and lower the confidence of the less talented, thereby hindering them from attaining their potential. Such behavior is subtly and at times overtly encouraged in the competitive system. And it is often interpreted as a sign of having the will or toughness to succeed. But it exacts a tremendous price on both winners and losers, on the naturally talented as well as those less gifted. Ultimately we all miss out through the potential that is never fulfilled, and the shining examples who might have been.
Precludes Relaxed Focus
People do develop focus when thrown prematurely into competition; but it is the focus of a startled rabbit. It’s natural to be scared when we aren’t sure if we know what we are doing, or whether we will be able to perform when it counts. With our ego and self-esteem on the line, our focus is distorted by tension. We go on a high alert, fight-or-flight mode that is not conducive to a relaxed focus or to peak performance. Performance anxiety obstructs the relaxed focus that produces the highest level of skill.
Discourages Physical Fitness
One of the worst side effects of over-emphasizing competition in the learning process is that many people develop an aversion to exercise and athletics. In school, children are at times forced to exercise and compete in ways that are stressful, not fun. Not surprisingly, many develop an aversion to exercise and sports. Physical Education can become a miserable chore for those who don’t do well in competitive environments, especially when they have learned to see themselves as losers from their earliest experiences. I believe this to be a factor in our current epidemic of obesity. Ask most people with a weight problem about their experiences in school physical education programs and organized athletics, and you will hear a litany of tales of woe.
Increases Self-inflicted Injuries
Another liability arising from the premature introduction of competition in sports is that habitual repetition of incorrect physical mechanics increases the chances of injury. An improperly performed mechanical action – a pitch in baseball or a serve in tennis – irritates and stresses muscles and joints. Such an action, repeated over and over, often leads to injury. It is a version of the well-known repetitive stress syndrome. Developing skill requires mastering proper form, which allows our actions to be more efficient and comparatively effortless. When we start competing prematurely, we shift our focus from skill development to winning however we can; and proper form is usually the first casualty.
Competitive sports, especially at higher levels, require exercise and conditioning to excel. At all levels, from recreational to professional, overuse is a significant issue, particularly for less naturally talented players. The only way to make up for a lack of talent is to train harder. And intense training takes its toll on our bodies. We accept as inevitable that our joints are going to break down as we age. But this “natural” event is greatly hastened if we push our bodies too hard. Look at the number of ex-athletes, from ballet dancers to football players, who can barely walk later in life. Pushing ourselves to extremes to compete is detrimental to our health.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
First, to understand how easily human behavior can be negatively influenced by an underlying system, consider a famous psychology experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971 by Professor Phillip Zimbardo. In this experiment Zimbardo set up a prison environment in a basement of one of the university buildings, then randomly divided his students into roles of prisoner or guard. The experiment, designed to last for two weeks, was terminated before the end of the first week due to the severity of the results, which included radical behavioral changes in virtually all of the participants. Within several days the student/guards began abusing the “prisoners”, who rapidly succumbed to a victim mentality. This experiment clearly demonstrated how profoundly a system can affect the behavior of the people within it, even to the point of distorting their usual personalities, behaviors and previously held values. In the following section, I show how the competitive system produces specific negative behavioral effects in ordinary people.
Initially, competition does produce motivation as we strive to be winners, but mounting losses can quickly undermine that motivation. If losing continues, staying motivated can be a Herculean task. Many sports psychologists are now saying that to maintain competitive motivation, participants need to win two out of every three contests they enter. Because most people don’t win anywhere close to that percentage, motivation frequently wanes; after a certain percentage of “failure”, resignation often occurs. This is why so many people drift from one activity to another, looking for a place where they can be successful — where they can be winners.
There’s another disturbing aspect to a competitive approach. Researchers have found that we only stay motivated if the rewards increase. After a period of time, if the rewards don’t increase, motivation levels tend to decrease. This is a common phenomenon in professional sports. How often have we heard of athletes who are already making millions of dollars wanting to renegotiate their contract because they feel they are worth more? If they don’t get their way, their motivation drops.
Lowers Performance Levels
Contrary to popular belief, competition actually lowers performance levels for almost all participants. Yes, competition can induce motivation in many instances. But as I have noted, much of this motivation involves fear of the consequences of failure. Psychologist Alfie Kohn, who has long explored the dynamics of competition, noted, “We are carefully trained to believe that a competitive arrangement results in superior performance.” From his research, Kohn concluded: “Superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.” The pressure of needing to win makes people tighten up, which universally lowers performance levels.
In a study completed in 1981, researchers David and Roger Johnson and colleagues published a paper analyzing the results of 122 different studies that examined whether competitive or cooperative environments induced higher performance. The results were eye opening: Over half the studies indicated that cooperation produced higher performance levels, more than one-third showed no statistical advantage to either cooperation or competition, and less than 10 percent showed a competitive environment producing higher performance. Philosopher John McMurtry concluded: “The pursuit of victory works to reduce the chance for excellence in the true performance of the sport. It tends to distract our attention from excellence of performance by rendering it subservient to emerging victorious.”
Competition is most enjoyable for winners. For “losers” it is rarely exciting or enjoyable. This is especially true when we consistently lose more than we win, which is the case for the majority. I have never met anyone who didn’t like winning, nor met anyone who enjoys losing! We see this in fans living and dying with their team; ecstatic when their team is winning, and angry or depressed when they are losing.
The “thrill of victory” adrenaline rush can become an addiction. Many people compete in one way or another for their whole lives, seeking the high that winning gives them. It makes them feel good about themselves; makes them feel they matter and are worthy. Many people use competition as a means to get approval and self-esteem. But the downside to chronic competition is that when winning is over-emphasized, our perspective becomes skewed and our character often becomes unbalanced. We lose sight of other more important values, like cooperation, trust, compassion, and the development of true human maturity.
Raises Stress Levels
People today are under a great deal of stress, whether from work, school, family, sports, relationships, or from having to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Since 9/11, stress levels have increased in a large segment of the American population, across all socioeconomic groups. The negative effects of stress include increased physical and emotional tension, uncertainty and fear, a weakening of the immune system, decline in health, and less overall enjoyment of life. Must we add to the unavoidable stresses of life the unnecessary burden of ubiquitous competition?
There is pressure and tension all around us, and we accept it as natural or at least inevitable. But are we like the proverbial frog that, when put into water that is slowly heated to a boil, calmly lets itself be cooked to death?
Undermines Healthy Character Development
One of the main benefits attributed to competition by supporters is that it develops character. But it can be equally shown that competition undermines, weakens and retards the development of real character, or human maturity. In a competitive environment we are taught to view others as adversaries, to find their weaknesses and exploit them, and even to use psychological tactics and strategies to distract and destabilize them. A competitive system often breeds hostile, mistrustful relationships between opponents, and a hostile environment. Competition can even turn friends into adversaries.
The “best” competitors show no compassion to their opponents; compassion could mean the difference between winning and losing! We must destroy their confidence, or they might defeat us! This approach pays dividends in the present, and in future encounters with our defeated opponents, over whom we establish a psychological advantage. In my forty-five years of experience in sports, I’ve seen this strategy taught, with no malice of intent, by a majority of successful coaches. These coaches believe that it is essential to instill this “competitive attitude” or “killer instinct” in people who are going to be winners at a high level.
A competitive mindset keeps many from developing admirable character traits, not to mention fulfilling their highest potential. Given the misbehavior we often see in competitions of various kinds, it might even be argued that the competitive mindset is a form of temporary insanity. It is much easier to maintain high ideals and play by the rules when we are winning. Once we start losing, however, the possibility that we will resort to negative alternatives to increase our chances of winning — such as overly aggressive behavior, intimidation, and cheating —increases. You have to win to be seen as a winner, and a certain percentage of people will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Highly competitive environments encourage a win-at-all-cost mentality that is a major contributor to destabilizing character development.
Conversely, those who don’t do well in competitive environments may end up avoiding all competition, which can also weaken character. Chronic failure undermines self-confidence, lowers self-esteem, produces feelings of inferiority, stimulates frustration, anger, resignation, sadness, and even depression and despair. Being told it is okay to lose doesn’t change this; we all know “losers” are looked down on in our competitive culture.
In a competitive system, the only way feelings of inferiority can be avoided is by winning enough to balance out the losses. This is problematic. Because by design the competitive system creates far more losers than winners, most people never win enough to balance out their losses. Feelings of inferiority stay with them, often for a lifetime. Feeling inferior may provide motivation to improve and excel, but in the long run it doesn’t bring out the best in us, nor help us to be our best.
I have seen the results of this cycle manifested with tennis players and other athletes. People who have lost a lot need to balance out their feelings of inferiority in order to feel good about themselves. A corrosive striving for superiority over others often arises from these experiences. Some go from one competitive activity to another, looking for a place where they can be the winners. The truth is that, in a competitive system, losers need to defeat somebody and exact their revenge in order to feel better about themselves. It takes a long time and a lot of positive feedback to change this dynamic. In a competitive environment, it’s extremely difficult to make up the deficit.
Finally, the more success we achieve in a competitive environment, the more people want to beat us. Like Old West gunfighters, we have to be constantly on the alert, looking over our shoulder to make sure no one is gunning for us. It’s easy to get a little edgy and make poor decisions in this environment. Emotions such as fear and anger can motivate us, but they don’t serve us well as dominant character traits. Yet these emotions tend to be forged in competitive environments, and through premature competition.