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!