Psst, Kids achieve more when they cooperate vs. compete

America is a competition obsessed country.  I just spent 5 days at a race ski camp for our kids and was thinking how we support our kids in the camp vs. others. My wife and I are focused on how our kids participate, engage with their peers, learn from their coaches, and improve their skills.  We aren’t competition obsessed and we don’t want our kids to that way either.  We are in the minority as most believe winning, being competitive is the way to success.  Here is a Psychology Today article that may let you into some insights from professionals who disagree with the focus on competition.

Cohen cites the research of Spencer Kagan and Millard Madsen which shows that children's achievement levels are superior when they cooperate versus compete. He also cites the research of  David and Roger Johnson of the University of Minnesota which showed 122 separate studies reporting cooperation promoting higher achievement than competition, and the research of Robert Helmreich of the University of Texas which showed that scientists, businessmen, academics, pilots and people in other professions who were considered experts, reported that personal challenge meant more to them than achievement through competition.

For those of you are ready to argue back that competition is the right way, the article throws this point up.

The argument is often made that intense competition builds character. Learning how to win and lose is supposed to toughen us and give us confidence. Yet, as anthropologist Jules Henry has said, "a competitive culture endures by tearing people down."

Consider the logic of it. Trying to outperform others and "win," is damaging, because like gambling in Vegas, the odds are against you. You will lose most of the time, because you can't win all the time. So every competition sets up the potential for humiliation, embarrassment, and demotivation, if the aim is winning.

And oh by the way.  You are obsessed with competition if you find you need another fix like a drug addict.

The other problem with the focus on winning, is that once you've tasted it, you need more. It's like an addiction. The pleasure effect of winning does not last, unlike the satisfaction of having done the best you can. Finally, a focus on winning makes people focus outside themselves for validation of their worth. What is their value if they don't get the medals, media attention and wealth that goes with winning? In contrast, the satisfaction of success and doing the best you can through cooperation has been shown to be linked with emotional maturity and strong personal identity.

There are many who are in ski race program who believe being competitive is the key to success.  Having worked at big companies like HP, Apple, and Microsoft i am so used to the hyper competitiveness that permeates the vast majority. of people. But, the winning is not the bonding factor.  The hours spent working together to persevere is what creates valued relationships.

Cohen argues that the most disturbing feature of competition to win is how it negatively affects our relationships. Competition in schools, sports, the workplace in families and among countries can be the thing that divides, disrupts and turn to negativity. While we like to preach that competition brings people closer together it is rarely the winning that does that, it is more often the personal journey, the shared experience and compassion for failure that is stronger.

The last paragraph is something I’ll try to keep in mind when our kids are in the ski race program.  

Perhaps the final indictment of an obsession with competition and winning, is that it restrains people from engaging in a personal journey of self knowledge and finding one's place in life as an entirely internal and personal process, not one that requires the comparisons and constant competition with others as a measure of self-worth.

Understanding where you are at in a race and being OK with it.  You tried your best and finished the race is more important.

Unlike Carl Lewis and Daley Thompson, Derek Redmond is not a name that conjures up memories of Olympic gold medals. But it is Redmond who defines the essence of the human spirit. Redmond arrived at the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona determined to win a medal in the 400. The color of the medal was meaningless; he just wanted to win one. Just one. Down the backstretch, only 175 meters away from finishing, Redmond is a shoo-in to make the finals. Suddenly, he heard a pop in his right hamstring. He pulls up lame, as if he had been shot. As the medical crew arrives, Redmond tells them, "I'm going to finish my race." Then in a moment that will live forever in the minds of millions of people since then, Redmond lifted himself up, and started hobling down the track. His father raced out of the stands, and helped his son cross the finish line to the applause of 65,000 people. Redmond did not win a medal, but he won the hearts of people that day and thereafter. To this day, people, when asked about the race, mention Redmond, and can't name the medal winners.