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.