Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chapter 2—A Competitive Learning System, Part 3, More Drawbacks

Ingrains Inadequate Basic Skills
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.

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